Gender Expression part 4 in The Gender Agenda Series

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
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Facebook once gave us 50 different ways to describe our gender [1]. How we feel about who we are and how we chose to express ourselves dominates our culture and occupies our social media forums. How can there be so many different gender identities? Mermaids UK has developed a diagram to help teens work out their identity called the Genderbread person [2] in which you can plot where you fit in and  work out which identity fits your experience best (male and female are far too simplistic). There are scales for gender identity, gender expression [3], biological sex, sexual attraction and romantic attraction. Any concept that gender is binary is lost in the numerous options and possibilities that are opened up (each accompanied by its own terminology). I might be a biological male identify as a woman and express myself as ‘butch’ or I might be a biological female who identifies as ‘genderqueer’ and express myself as ‘androgynous’. Using this model all social expectations are thrown out of the window. What matters is the search for self and the freedom to express oneself — we create our gender on the canvas of self and display it to the world. Thomas Neuwirth who won the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 as Conchita Wurst a woman with a beard,and Grayson Perry the British artist have explored these ideas.

Whether or not we think of ourselves as expressing gender we all do it. Different cultures do it in different ways. Our clothing now provides many unisex options but we still have women’s and men’s clothing ranges. If a man chooses to wear a dress like Grayson Perry he stands out from the crowd yet the Scottish kilt is formal wear for men with strong masculine overtones and no one has problems with this. Gendered clothing is complicated! Does it matter? Can we play with our gender expression? Surely it’s ok for girls to have short hair, wear trousers and play rugby? We might be less comfortable with men having long hair, wearing skirts, putting on make up and knitting but is it really a problem? Is it ok to be a ‘girly’ man and a ‘butch’ woman? We have to admit that the bulk of our attitudes to gender expression are socially constructed and those ideas constantly change. After all we express ourselves today in ways that Victorian culture would have found horrifying and we know that gender expression is different in different parts of the world. So does the bible have anything to say about how we should express our gender? Are there any restrictions?

Yes, the bible speaks directly into this issue particularly addressing women. Women are singled out concerning their propensity to focus on adornment and need to be reminded that it is their inner being that matters not outward appearance cf. 1Peter 3:3-5, 1 Tim 2:9.This may feel unfair after all are women really more prone than men to putting too much emphasis on clothes, fashion, and beauty? Feminists argue that women have been pressured to dress up because of the male gaze and therefore their propensity to outward display is because of the way they have been socialized which may well be true. However, this explanation does not detract from the principle that inward beauty is what matters above all else and women need to know that and resist the pressure to live otherwise. The bible is clear — we are much more than our gender expression. The bible offers us freedom from slavery to fashion and image (and freedom from the slavery to perform for the gaze of others). This is good news! The need to put on make up before being seen in public, to have money to get the ‘right’ clothes, and the need for ones appearance to be constantly admired by others is a destructive pressure that leads not to confidence but anxiety for both women and men. The bible calls us all first and foremost to realise that it is the state of our hearts that matters before God not our appearance.

But there are two other places which are important when considering gender expression in which appearance does matter. The first is in the Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 22:5:

‘A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.’

How are we to understand this verse? The language is very strong and makes for uncomfortable reading. The idea that God who loves the world detests anyone is hard to hear. Deuteronomy uses the word ‘detest’ to depict God’s attitude to many other things that are marked out as contrary to living as God’s holy people. The truth of the gospel is that we are all God’s enemies and none of us live as we ought, we are none of us by nature loveable but rather detestable which makes it all the more amazing that Christ died for us and loves us cf. Romans 5: 6-10. Of course because of the gospel we are no longer bound by the law that God gave to Moses so just as I am free to eat prawns and bacon am I free to ignore Deuteronomy 22:5 which clearly states that women should not dress as men and men should not dress as women? I think not because a similar idea occurs in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11:4-15.

This passage (with all of its accompanying difficulties) points to the need for women (in particular wives) to display in a culturally appropriate way the fact that they are women. It is hard for us to get our heads around the way Paul argues here because our cultural expressions have changed so much. We do not find it shocking or disgraceful for a woman to have short hair neither do we consider it disgraceful for a man to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:6, 14). I am not going to attempt to unpack 1 Corinthians 11 it would take far too long, but it is clear that when women(wives) spoke publicly in church they were to display the normal (expected) cultural practices associated with their gender:

‘Men and women(in particular wives) should wear or not wear on their heads whatever accurately communicates in Corinthian culture the God-given distinction between them.’[4]

In summary we are to express the gender linked with our physical sex in the way in which our culture understands it. Our gender expression therefore should somehow show publicly that we embrace our creation as men or women. To modern ears this sounds very binary! And overriding this we should remember that what ultimately matters is the state of our hearts not our clothes; Paul put it like this in Colossians:

‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.’ (Col 3:12)

I take it after applying these principles we have huge freedom how we express ourselves as men or women. Negotiating the boundary of our culture’s gender expressions is not straight forward because it’s a moving target but we want our behaviour to be within the range of expected behaviour for our physical sex. Women in particular can enjoy fluctuating between jeans and Doc Martins and dresses with heels and all the many alternatives in between. Today's girls can play football and rugby and boys can knit and bake cakes. We probably have more freedom than ever before in our history. The bible however does insist on difference between men and women which leads onto the subject of my next blog — does the bible define Gender roles?


[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/10930654/Facebooks-71-gender-options-come-to-UK-users.html - This now simplified to male/female/ or custom.
[2] http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk/assets/media/Genderbread-Person-3.3-HI-RES.pdf
[3] ‘Gender expression’ describes the way that gender is expressed outwardly through our actions, dress and demeanour.
[4] Ben Cooper Positive Complementarianism , The Latimer Trust, p.20