On gender and genderlessness

July 23, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

There were two days last May when the same baby made the cover of my local newspaper, The Toronto Star (May 21st and 25th, 2011). The story was a provocative one which has since made international news. It was about Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, a Toronto couple who have decided to raise their baby without disclosing whether it’s a girl or a boy, at least for now. The birth announcement just said the name, Storm, and stated that the parents had decided not to reveal their baby’s sex in order to allow Storm to create his/her own identity, free from the constraints of gender stereotyping. Reactions, summarized in a debate in the paper, said some nasty things, amounting to the idea that the parents were imposing their own agenda onto their kid. There was no way that kid was going to turn out normally, people said. He or she would be bullied, and would never fit in.

In a way, I can see the logic of the parents’ argument. As soon as people know whether a child is a boy or a girl, their attitudes towards the child, consciously or not, shift. Little girls are praised for their prettiness and sweetness, while little boys are congratulated on growing big and strong. These parents are right – this kind of language is used from the very beginning of a child’s life, shaping how that child will see him or herself in the future. And it’s not a neutral process. When gender is defined too rigidly and the differences between girls and boys are exaggerated, I agree that harm can be done. In her book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson speaks of strict gender categories as unhelpful in that they’re both too general and too narrow. They’re too general in suggesting that all women or all men must feel, think, and behave a certain way, overlooking the individual variety among women and among men. Likewise, they’re too narrow in that they artificially split humanity up into two distinct categories, when gender is really just one aspect of our multi-faceted identities (pp. 154-55). This is especially the case in the church, where, according to Galatians, Christian unity transcends gender divisions: “…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

But does this mean that gender should be thrown out? Should we all just ignore it and avoid disclosing it, like Storm’s parents have chosen to do? This method seems flawed to me. For one thing, it’s based on the assumption that individuals have sole responsibility for shaping their own identities; in other words, it sees any community influence on identity-formation as a negative imposition. I really don’t buy that argument. It reminded me of the philosophy of raising children without teaching them anything about religion, so they can come to their own decision about what to believe without any “interference” from their parents or anyone else. But faith is not created out of thin air, or out of an isolated, individual psyche. Not only does that put an incredible amount of pressure on children, it also usually backfires, sending the message that religion isn’t important because parents just don’t discuss it. In the case of gender, there is no such thing as being a completely clean slate – as embodied beings, we are male and female. But, in the face of all that we are told about the normality of gender stereotypes, many tend to forget that the significance and outworking of maleness and femaleness are not prescribed.

Sticking to the faith parallel, maybe we can think of gender, among other aspects of our identities, as something that is modeled by others; we learn what our gender means from others, in our families, church, and other communities. This is something that Storm’s father, David, recognized in an interview on the CBC radio show, Q, when he mentioned that he and Kathy try to model “ethical…behaviour that sets a good example for kids,” regardless of gender (Q, June 6, 2011). This means that instead of avoiding talking about gender within the church, we could be talking about which aspects of gender we find positive and genuine, and which destructive. And, as effective “witness” for others, we can choose to live the positive aspects of gender in our own ways, in accordance with our own unique identities. This choice, which I see as related to believer’s baptism, is a decision we make as individuals, with the help of the Spirit, in the context of the church community. So, as a church, we can affirm together that we are created male and female (Genesis 1:27), but there are also many gifts given by the Spirit (I Corinthians 12), distributed with much more imagination and mystery than exaggerated gender stereotypes allow. Within the church, roles will be distributed according to gifts, not along gender lines, which may lead to a woman in the pulpit (no longer very rare), or a man in the nursery (somewhat less common). Sure, we might be ridiculed by some, and we may not fit into “normal” or “traditional” gender categories, but we’ll be living in accordance with our actual, God-given gifts and identities. This means that gender and faith really are connected after all, just not in the way most people assume. Instead of hemming us into traditional gender assumptions, the church has the potential to disentangle us from them, to set us on a broader (though perhaps more complicated) path. This is something I’ll keep returning to in this blog, these questions of gender and faith. I hope you’ll join me.

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