It used to be so simple. A child was born and as it drew it’s first breathe the announcement was made ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’ I experienced that four times, surprised each time. We had two girls followed by two boys. We were more than happy to have all girls (my husband fancied himself as the next Mr Bennett). I remember with our third child the ‘it’s a boy moment’ and thinking ‘but I don’t know what to do with one of those!’ That thought revealed my fundamental belief that there is difference between boys and girls. It’s not that we had gone for traditional ‘girly’ stereotypes with our girls — they wore dungarees rather than dresses, played with both trucks and trains as well as dolls and we passionately avoided the excesses of all things pink and banned Barbie. But despite wanting to provide our daughters with a range of options for play, to encourage them to develop to their potential I believed having a boy would be different and so it has proved to be. How much of that difference is down to personality differences, hormonal differences, brain differences, our parental influence or societal expectations is much debated. What does it mean to be born male or female?
It used to be simple. You were either male or female, man or woman, boy or girl, this in and of itself meant that at a fundamental level there was an understood difference. That difference was more than physiological, it was innate, psychological, difference of both body and mind. Popular culture has talked of this difference throughout history:
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails
That's what little boys are made of
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all things nice
That's what little girls are made of
How we understand gender has come a long way since that nursery rhyme. Everything we thought we knew has been turned on its head. We acknowledge that many of our previous beliefs about masculinity and femininity are inaccurate cultural stereotypes but things have moved further than that. It is now possible to be described as a man but give birth to children, to be described as a woman but have a penis, some people refer to ‘the female penis’. More and more children are being referred to clinics with ‘gender dysphoria’ : ‘the experience of distress associated with the incongruence wherein one’s psychological and emotional gender identity does not match one’s biological sex’. A popular way of describing this is of being ‘a man trapped inside a woman’s body’ or vice versa. All of this means that at the moment of birth everything we presumed to be true about a baby boy or girl is up for grabs, we no longer assume which gender they will identify with and there is a lot of choice from the conventional binary male and female to every combination of expression in between.
While Christians have been discussing among themselves the role of women in the Church and being concerned about gay marriage there has been a revolution surrounding gender identity. It is a subject we have found difficult to talk into for several reasons, the first is that as Christians we have a tendency to be reductionist when we think about things like gender — we think it is simple and passionately hold on to stereotypes which we have not examined properly in the light of scripture. This has meant that we have become more polarised in our view of gender which distances us from a culture which talks about things in an entirely different way. We think we are using the same language but often when Christians speak of gender they have no awareness of the complex ways it is understood particularly in the under 25 demographic particularly the separating out of gender biology and gender identity. I have been so grateful to have my now uni aged children challenging me on my use of language and understanding of these issues. Our other response is to be silent because we are afraid to cause offence. We know that for many the experience of gender dysphoria is painful and difficult and we don’t want to add to that.The stories of suicide following the experience of transphobia play hard in our minds; we want to be loving and affirming to people, we want to show compassion. Finally we are afraid of the politics of the transgender movement after all Germaine Greer was no-platformed for her view that surgery cannot change a man into a woman . What we wonder will happen if we say the wrong thing? The sound of silence from the conservative wing of the Church on this issue has been deafening.
There has been one narrative that has been doing the rounds: God made us male and female therefore we are different, we must rejoice in our difference by living as godly men and women expressing godly masculinity and godly femininity; anyone who rejects this is a rebellious sinner following the idol of self. I don’t think this helpful. It lacks compassion towards those for whom gender dysphoria is a difficult lived experience. It assumes masculinity and femininity as clear concepts and it fails to provide a framework to begin to exercise pastoral wisdom in this area.
As I have been seeking to share the gospel with young women gender identity has been an issue that is impossible to avoid. I have decided to write a series of blogs to say where I have got to in my thinking so far, it is just a beginning. There are key things to think through:
What does the bible teach us about gender in its different forms, i.e., biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, gender roles?
How do we live as godly men and women today?
How do we parent our children with regard to gender?
Next blog to follow soon.
 Pride and Prejudice allusion to spending a lot of tucked away in the study thinking!
 Mark A. Yarhouse Understanding Gender Dysphoria IVP