UMC: Gender Identity

In anticipation of human-sexuality debates at the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, and in the wake of laws providing for increased exclusivity against LGBTQ people (despite other laws advocating inclusivity), I offer the following reflection….

In recent days, conservatives have come up with new language to attempt to reverse newfound freedoms for LGBTQ people.  One new term is “birth gender”–a phrase now used by conservatives to attempt to define sexual identity.  We are, they tell us, required to use “birth gender” to establish a person’s true sexuality–thus implying that any deviation from our initial anatomy is wrong.

This new language has made it into legal documents, most notably “religious freedom” legislation, appeals by some Christian schools to be exempt from Title IX, and other pronouncements which relegate LGBTQ persons to some kind of lesser status in society and the Christian community.

The problem with this new attempt is that it ignores and treats as of no consequence one of the foundational factors which even conservatives have previously included in their views of human sexuality –namely, the activity and effect of hormones.  To look at a newborn infant and say, “God made a boy” or “God made a girl” assumes that gender identity is based on one thing, when even traditional views of sexual identity have included multiple factors.  An infant’s anatomy may suffice to put a label on a birth certificate, but it is not sufficient for establishing our gender identity.

Even biologically speaking, we know that there are further phases of identity development.  We call one of them puberty–the time when our initial physical makeup is given further development and maturation, and when we say that boys and girls are beginning to “like” each other.  The time when this next phase kicks in varies from person to person.  But everyone goes through it sooner or later.  It is fundamental to human development in more ways than sexuality.

But sticking with biology, we know that 90-95% of this hormonal activity produces a heterosexual orientation.  We also know that in 5-10% of people, hormones appear to produce effects that we broadly characterize as homosexual.  And just as the person had no say in their presenting physical makeup at birth, they also have no say in the effect of hormones upon them during puberty.

The fact is, God creates our gender identity in stages over time, with biological factors coming into play along the way.  On the biological level alone, the conservative attempt to make  “birth gender” definitive of sexual identity collapses because of its own incompleteness, an incompleteness which narrows and simplifies even what the Bible teaches, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

To connect anatomy with morality is a fundamental error, an error which keeps the much larger notion of Covenant from having its rightful place in a theology of human sexuality.  Anatomy has never been the sole factor for gender identity or sexual morality, but rather the Covenant, which calls for and expects sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency–behaviors which everyone can live. By excluding Covenant, no adequate theology of human sexuality is possible, and by limiting a definition of gender identity to physical appearance at birth skews the picture at the outset.

We have every reason to expect that conservatives will continue to use the new “birth gender” definition, but we are under no obligation to accept the definition when it so clearly fails to take even the biological aspects of gender identity development into account.

As important as the biological dimension is in establishing a proper theology of human sexuality, the matter is even more critical, because left to stand, a “birth gender” definition provides a place for conservatives to stand in attempting to justify their underlying discriminatory and damaging behaviors toward LGBTQ persons in both the society and the church.  It is this derogatory spirit, expressed in whatever venue, which must ultimately be challenged and called out for the un-Christlike mindset it represents.  It is not a mindset upon which either a society or a church can construct a foundation that will represent life together in the Kingdom of God.

[Note: for more on this, read Michael Regele, ‘Science, Scripture, and Same-Sex Love’–a good book in its own right, but filled with even more substantive references)

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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8 Responses to UMC: Gender Identity

  1. Tim Farrell says:

    The truth of the Gospel reminds us of how Jesus raised the standard of holiness. In Mark 10:6, Jesus responded to an inquiry re. divorce… Whereas the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus re. the law of Moses and the permission to give certificates of divorce, Jesus brought them back “to the beginning.” “‘God made them male and female from the beginning of creation'” (Mark 10:6). Jesus did not acquiesce to the practice of writs of divorce as was culturally normative… He referenced the original intention of the Creator.
    I believe this bears remembering in our cultural context today. The early Church was saturated in a context of sexual options within the Roman Empire. Yet it’s clear the standard of holiness offered 2 paths of sexual expression: marriage between a man and a woman… or… chastity.
    One of the means toward ethical reflection I use is to take ethics to their extremes and see where the subtly of current praxis leads over time. Can we overlay current agendas within the LBGTQ community overtop the New Testament witness and lives of faith? Would we look at a Savior who practiced homosexuality… or pursued transgendered ends… or lived out bi-sexual behaviors… and follow Him? What would we think of an Apostle Paul who, rather than living out a chaste life, chose to practice same-sex relations or unbridled pursuit of multiple partners?
    Some of the posts in Oboedire seem to reflect a lens that assumes LBGTQ persons are faithful, monogamous, and lifelong covenantal partners. What I don’t hear is that the very nature of bi-sexuality reflects the practice of a person who may choose to be with a person(s) of either gender. That the cultural agenda of the gay community continues to enlarge it’s spectrum of behaviors/practices that are wanting affirmation and legitimization. What’s to limit the spectrum from those who believe they are born to be wed to multiple people… or… those who feel they are made to pursue relationships with minors… or those who feel they were created to be in an “open” marriage relationship?
    Don’t get me wrong… it’s true that heterosexual marriages have not offered up a faithful witness within the church and the culture. We pursue divorce and sadly many marriages are anything but faithful. However, this doesn’t change God’s intention “from the beginning.”
    The LBGTQ within the UMC is arguing that the current discipline doesn’t allow for expression of sexuality and that this is hateful and discriminatory. I would argue that the focus upon human sexuality that’s currently raging in the UMC is not an issue of discrimination so much as it’s a reflection that our culture cannot think of the person without focusing upon sexuality. The irony of the current LBGTQ agenda is that they are making front and center sexuality the primary construct of identity that only reflects a culture saturated in sex. What’s discriminatory, is how the international church is subverted… their witness largely stands against a “western” desire for sexual expression and freedom. Is it time for the UMC to listen and follow the LBGTQ community… or… is it time for the UMC to heed the global witness of our international brothers and sisters who are seeking to hold us to our discipline? I say the latter is more in line with what God intended from the beginning.

  2. Jack Harnish says:

    Well said…as always

  3. Lynn Moore says:

    “Fearfully and wonderfully made” – that is the key! So did God somehow mess up 5-10% of the time? I did not read anything about psychological changes and development. But I know personally and from my own study that those cannot be discounted or simply swept under some emotional carpet. In the crusade to include everyone’s feelings, we cannot afford to ignore common sense, developmental learning and the many glitches along the way! So, let’s not throw out birth gender so quickly,please. We ARE fear-fully and wonder-fully made.

  4. Kathy Boyles says:

    Extremely thankful for your thoughtful (and no doubt prayerful posts), Steve. You are a voice calling out in the darkness – a voice of Light – Truth – Grace. I have little to do with the church anymore – but people like you are helping me stay connected to what I believe to be the Love, Grace, and Creativity of God.

  5. Stephen Boggan says:

    It seems if we are going to allow more factors than “birth gender” to come into play, such as puberty and hormonal development, we should also allow for other developmental factors, which may come into play later in life. For example a mid-life crisis, when married persons may decide they want to change directions in their intimate relationships. This would have a profound effect on “Covenant, which calls for and expects sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency–behaviors which everyone can live.”

  6. Mark Mcroberts says:

    Why is there a modern war against LGBTQI folk? What does the majority religious have to fear? Especially when the group is an amazing small group 5% to 10% of the population. Plus why do so many christian families turn out their children on the streets when they come out. How is that pro family? Then the Christian community as a whole, after they have treated children and adults as human garbage. Then blame LGBTQI people as morally corrupt even though during their growing up they were abused bullied tossed out like garbage to the street. They were abandoned by society and church who blame them for their own abandonment they did not ask for. Children and adults wish to be in love with their families and communities not the subject of scorn. Please dont say love the person hate the sin, it is not biblical and simply blaming the victim. WHY ANSWER ME THAT YOU SUPERIOR LAUDED RELIGIOUS. My faith in formal religion is being tested and i don’t see much grace or mercy coming from the UMC. Just a lot of law and process.

  7. Leonard Schoenherr says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful posts.

    Sent from my iPad

    Len Schoenherr Home 269.903.2182 Cell 269.579.3375

    The truth will set you free, but it will knock the stuffings out of you in the process.


  8. John Powers says:

    Thank you for your wisdom, grace, and leadership, Steve.

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