By Rubel Shelly
Stated in the most basic terms, sex is an objective category defined by empirically discernible and set-at-birth qualities, whereas gender is a subjective self-perception and option for the presentation of oneself to others. The former is biological, while the latter is psychological. The former states who a person is in terms of bodily taxonomy, and the latter offers what a person may feel about one’s placement in the world’s social structures.
A biological male with a high-pitched voice, shorter-than-average height, and/or wearing a pink shirt is still male. A biological female whose voice has a lower pitch than most of her male peers, who is taller than the man she dates, and/or makes blue her signature color remains female.
As evolutionary biologist Colin Wright wrote in the Wall Street Journal last April, there are two and only two possibilities for an organism’s sex.
When biologists claim that sex is binary, we mean something straightforward: There are only two sexes. This is true throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. An organism’s sex is defined by the type of gamete (sperm or ova) it has the function of producing. Males have the function of producing sperm, or small gametes; females, ova, or large ones. Because there is no third gamete type, there are only two sexes. Sex is binary.
It is the so-called “soft sciences” of psychology, gender studies, and the like that are misusing data to press an agenda against the sex binary of male and female. Consistent with the postmodern mindset that allows people to “declare their personal truth,” practically every major university now grants the non-binary status as normative and allows students, faculty, and staff to self-identify the pronoun and gender by which to be addressed and allowed to function. Passing through the LAX airport not long ago, the waiting area for my flight was opposite a triad of restrooms—Men, Women, and All Genders. As of April 11, 2022, American citizens are allowed to select M, F, or X as their gender marker on their U.S. passport applications.
Stated as a question for believers, it becomes the following: Should human physiology be chemically, surgically, and otherwise modified to match one’s psychological state—or the other way around?
Broader Cultural Questions
While the biblical-theological placement of these issues is my primary concern, it is undeniable that the practical impact of what is taking place in the broader culture has implications for Christian children and their parents, educators, and therapists who prioritize their faith, and churches and Christian schools.
Without any deference to distinctively Christian concerns, a piece titled “The Dangerous Denial of Sex,” written jointly by American and British biologists Colin Wright and Emma Hilton (and published in The Wall Street Journal in February 2020), points to jeopardies that will confront females in various environments which allow persons to self-select their gender identity.
Women have fought hard for sex-based legal protections. Female-only spaces are necessary due to the pervasive threat of male violence and sexual assault. Separate sporting categories are also necessary to ensure that women and girls don’t have to face competitors who have acquired the irreversible performance-enhancing effects conferred by male puberty. The different reproductive roles of males and females require laws to safeguard women from discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. The falsehood that sex is rooted in subjective identity instead of objective biology renders all these sex-based rights impossible to enforce.
As to the harm that can be done to young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the same writers point out that “the large majority of gender-dysphoric youths eventually outgrow their feelings of dysphoria during puberty” and are better protected from—rather than subjected to—certain widely used protocols.
“Affirmation” therapies, which insist a child’s cross-sex identity should never be questioned, and puberty-blocking drugs, advertised as a way for children to “buy time” to sort out their identities, may only solidify feelings of dysphoria, setting them on a pathway to more invasive medical interventions and permanent infertility. This pathologizing of sex-atypical behavior is extremely worrying and regressive. It is similar to gay “conversion” therapy, except that it’s now bodies instead of minds that are being converted to bring children into “proper” alignment with themselves.
While one could wish that the overriding cultural concerns around this issue could focus on the scientific, philosophic, and theological issues highlighted here, it appears that the single concern most often highlighted has to do with athletic competition. Papers similar to a study published by The Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University have documented the competitive disadvantage of athletes born female against those born male. The paper—“Comparing Athletic Performances: The Best Elite Women to Boys and Men,” by Doriane Lambelet Coleman and Wickliffe Shreve—begins: “If you know sport, you know this beyond a reasonable doubt: there is an average 10-12% performance gap between elite males and elite females.”
The same paper cites the fact that “in the single year 2017, Olympic, World, and U.S. Champion Tori Bowie’s 100 meters lifetime best of 10.78 was beaten 15,000 times by men and boys.” As to the explanation for such extremes, the authors write: “The differential isn’t the result of boys and men having a male identity, more resources, better training, or superior discipline. It’s because they have an adrogenized [testosterone-endowed, RS] body.”
Rejecting Conceptual Confusion
While we watch, agonize over certain aspects, and are forced to live within a culture that exhibits increasing bewilderment over the sex/gender topic, Christian teaching and vocabulary need to resist its conceptual confusion. Biblically and scientifically, humans exist as either male or female. To say that sex is binary is simply to say that there are two and only two options. In the relatively rare condition known as “intersex,” there is a genital ambiguity or genetic variance—but not a “third” sex. Whatever variation may occur in the 0.018 percent of the human population that is intersex raises legitimate questions of medical care and Christian compassion relative to their bodies. That variation does not invalidate or cast doubt on the unquestionable nature of the 99.982 percent whose binary status establishes the norm.
While the modern term “gender” may be used to reflect the self-perception of a person of either sex toward comfort with gender expectations (as examples, macho behaviors for males or feminine social requirements for females) or acting against them (it has not been long ago that doctors were males and nurses females—with females denied admission to medical schools), gender variance does not redefine one’s sex. The relationship between sex and gender is therefore tangential at best, and one may legitimately question the “gender expectations” that a given society seeks to impose.
For those who present their struggle against those expectations as a rejection of “antiquated notions of biological sex and my human rights,” there are surely cases in which the latter claim about human rights is correct and the former would be a category mistake. Does anyone still believe that only women should cook, change diapers, or weep over a tragedy? That only men can be company CEOs, presidents of universities, or vote? Gender options have shifted along a spectrum of opportunity and recognition of personal ability. There are still only two identifiable sexes—male and female—who either conform, challenge, or are indifferent to those changes. Gender roles have been fluid enough to undergo modification, while the fixed taxonomy of two and only two sexes has remained immutable.
In the present climate of cultural disorientation over sexuality, parents will need to be wary of guidance being offered them about replacing common sense with guidance from “experts.”
The executive director of an organization whose stated purpose is to advocate for affirmative learning environments for LGBTQ+ youth told Time magazine, “When you take the job of education around complex issues out of the hands of experts and educators, you are leaving parents and caregivers and guardians to do jobs they aren’t qualified to do” (from “How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender,” June 5, 2023). It has to make all of us wonder how children ever survived with mere parents to nurture them.
The Time article offers a single perspective and proceeds to train parents in the proper technique for supporting a non-binary view of human sexuality. While claiming to offer parents “clear, accurate information,” it gives garbled opinions that challenge the biblical view offered elsewhere.
As an example of the “garbled” views in a newsmagazine many have trusted, the article acknowledges that most children “play” in a variety of gender roles—hair, dress, mannerisms, social functions—with no long-term significance. Yet it suggests books for parents, picture books for children, video series for both, and other educational resources that help parents teach their children that “gender norms are optional” and effectively coach their children into a gender-fluid mindset.
Gender dysphoria is real. Most who experience it will work through its minor vestiges as they mature through life experience. For those whose situation is severe and in need of help, a spiritual guide or professional therapist will be helpful when assisting someone to align their subjective inner state with their biological status.
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This essay is excerpted from Male and Female God Created Them: A Biblical Response to LGBTQ+ Claims, by Rubel Shelly; published by College Press Publishing Co.
Rubel Shelly has spent his adult life in Christ-centered ministry through preaching, teaching at both graduate and undergraduate levels, and writing. His commitment is to a non-sectarian presentation of the gospel. He and his late wife, Myra, have three grown children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.