is gender on a spectrum?

color spectrum.jpg

I work at a Christian summer camp that reaches out to low income children and teens from South Bend. Camp Ray Bird is one hundred years old this year and one of the coolest places on the planet. Most of our campers come to us with very little knowledge of the gospel or of Jesus and we have the awesome privilege of helping them get to know Him.

It is in this context that the Lord has helped me flesh out much of what I hold to be true about sexuality. I’ve been able to sit with many teens and young adults and listen to stories. Their struggles and their honest faith has changed me. We’ve come to have the reputation among other Christian camps as a place where faith and sexuality gets discussed well. In many respects, the conversation on our grounds has outpaced the conversation in the Church by many years. And that can frustrate me a lot. We spend a good chunk of time during training with our staff explaining and working through doctrine. We talk with them about the historical sexual ethic, that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman and that sex was intended to happen inside that covenantal relationship. We take this time because we want to see a generation of young people equipped with Scripture and winsome speech, so that when they return to their churches they can influence the culture there.

In the past couple of summers there has been a growing need to speak more clearly regarding the topic of gender. Campers, staff, and our community seems to be swirling around this topic. And if the Church is a couple years behind us on the topic of sexuality, then it definitely hasn’t come to reckon with the gender landscape around us either.

So we have plodded on, praying, seeking wisdom, and asking others how they have begun to serve a teen population where 16% identify as non-binary or transgender. Sixteen percent. That is a lot of teens with questions, confusion, and little direction and wisdom from the adults around them. I attended a seminar at the Revoice ‘19 conference led by the ministry Lead Them Home. The speaker shared that while 16% of teens currently would identify as non-binary, this number drops to under 1% at age 25. Now one percent is still a significant number of people experiencing gender discord or dysphoria, and that should move the Church to grow in compassion. 

But this statistic got me thinking. What makes the difference in these numbers over the course of about ten years? And while I may not be able to explain or account completely for this, it has challenged me to “pay the brain bill” on the topic of gender because there are so many teens struggling with their gender to varying degrees.

It only makes sense to me that as an adult who cares deeply about teens and young adults, I want to be equipped to walk alongside those teens experiencing gender discord. I want to be an encouragement. I want to be authentic. I want to help point them towards God, who is reaching out to them every minute of every day. I want to help them understand that where I don’t have all the answers, the Holy Spirit wants to lead them to the answer—a relationship with Christ. 

But I have little to say when I haven’t spent adequate time and energy to understand the complexity and nuance of gender.

Our society seems to sum gender up easily in pink and blue boxes. Men love sports, are burly, work on cars, and don’t reveal emotions. Women love to cook, have and take care of children, and decorate their homes. Especially for teens, there is little room for gender expression outside of the traditional norms. Effeminate boys are routinely called derogatory names and labelled. Junior high and senior high are not friendly places for those who stand out as “different.” Recently a friend was shocked when I said that l I am routinely correcting kids for calling other kids “gay”when I’m at the high school. As a society we don’t tolerate difference well, no matter how “progressive” we see ourselves.

And that alone makes a hard road to hoe in so many areas like race, sexuality, gender, or women’s issues. 

I’m sure over the course of the next few weeks as camp rolls on, I will have more thoughts about gender and our trials and errors here.

But today’s “take home” is this: can we begin to see gender along a spectrum and tolerate gender expression more graciously? If you examine the Scriptures I think you will find that much of what we call masculinity and femininity in society and in the Church doesn’t originate there. Yet, especially in the Church, we can “spiritualize” our ideas of how we should look, act, and live as men and women. This needs to be examined and stopped.

I am not at all meaning to say that gender is non binary. God created male & female, and sin has brought much harm to that. But, we also have added definitions of maleness and femaleness that are not biblical. Those who experience discord with their gender ought not to be further harmed by the box I/we want to place them in.

It’s like this: can femininity have a wide variety of expression that may never include pink, may never include makeup, may never include playing with dolls. In fact, could femininity include hardhats, sports, longer shorts, and an interest in car repair? Could our daughters, friends, and sisters be allowed this freedom?

The same for masculinity. Could our sons, friends, and brothers not be questions and labelled when they play with dolls, love art, love music, and love cooking? My son carried a doll for much of his childhood and today loves creative expression over car repair. Does that make him less “male”?

As evangelical believers, let’s jump feet first into the discussion of gender that is swirling in our society. Examine your heart and thoughts—where do you judge others in the area of gender that is not based in the Scriptures? What is “acceptable” gender expression for males and females, and where did you get that idea? Are you willing to allow yourself to be challenged in this area so that we can reach out in a relevant way to a world that is hurting? 

Let’s work together to:

Learn what the Scriptures say in the area of gender.

Be able to speak winsomely and in today’s language regarding gender.

Allow our ideas of gender expression to be less of a “dot” and more of a “spectrum.”

Susan Titus