This question has come up in the context of the conversation about transgender issues. Some people have commented that they struggle a little with when people say that they have a clear sense of their gender.” I think they are particularly referring to when people consider themselves different to the gender on their birth certificate. The point made by those raising the issue is that they aren’t particularly aware of a strong inner feeing in this.
It got me to thinking about what I’m strongly aware of when it comes to my gender. I guess that it boils down to two things primarily.
I’m aware that I have a male physical body
I’m aware that I love my wife who is female.
I suspect that I could add in a few other things I’m aware of.
I’m aware that I ware clothes that are associated with being male and that I’m comfortable in the clothes I wear and would probably be self-conscious in other clothes
I’m aware that I enjoy playing and watching football. This also seems to be primarily though less and less exclusively.
I’m aware that as a child I enjoyed reading comics like Victor that focused on sport and stories about the war. I also enjoyed let’s pretend games about war. When I was asked what I wanted for Christmas I would ask for things like cars, toy soldiers and a castle.
Now looking at the two lists you’ll recognise that there’s a difference between the two. The first list is what is usually associated with “sex” -the physical characteristics of being male or female (although in fact the secular world would argue that only the first one is truly about that and that sexual attraction is not primarily a matter of sex or gender).
The second list is what people tend to associate with the label gender and whilst that links to and overlaps with sex, it is considered much more of a social construct. To be sure, I grew up in a generation that associated being male with war games, sports, short hair and trousers. Girls war dresses and skirts, liked the colour pink, played with dolls and had long hair. But those things are not necessarily fixed but are dictated by cultural assumptions.
It’s important then to think about what someone means when they say that they are aware of their true gender and that it’s different to the one on their birth certificate or that they feel deeply uncomfortable and at odds with their gender. It is possible that they are responding to specific cultural expectations about what it means to be male or female.
At the same time, there are people who feel alienated from their physical sex. They are unhappy with their body. It’s important too remember that there are also a number of other things that people may feel deep unease and distress about in relation to their bodies.
Further, people may be expressing deep distress, discomfort, alienation and/or shame that runs deeper still. Their discomfort is much more about who they are, what is expected of them and how they are viewed. We may do better to talk about identity dysphoria rather than gender dysphoria.
Our greater concern as Christians is not the debate but rather the conversations. How should we respond when someone talks about gender dysphoria and it’s about them personally.
My advice pastorally is that it might be helpful to gently, humbly and lovingly ask a few questions. Indeed asking questions is crucial if we are to avoid jumping to conclusions.
- Ask them who/what it is they identify as. Encourage them to answer expansively
- Ask them what is about themselves that causes them to feel distress, discomfort and/or alienation/distance.
- Ask them if they could change, what is it that they would want to change about themselves.
- Ask them how making those changes would change their life.
At this point I would also ask them if they would be willing to look at God’s Word with me and if they are ready for God to speak to us and challenge us