Katie Couric recently hosted a documentary entitled Gender Revolution on the National Geographic channel. A companion piece to the latest edition of National Geographic magazine, the documentary focused on matters relating to intersex and transgender people. Essentially, it raised questions about a world where it’s not merely gender roles that are up for grabs, but gender itself.
The documentary was strongest when it focused on personal stories and Couric functioned as a helpful host. She served not as a lecturer, but as a learner along with the audience, taking time to introduce key terms and concepts along the way.
For Christians seeking to articulate a theology of gender in the midst of this revolution, the most fascinating exchange in the documentary came toward the end, when Couric sat down with 82-year-old transgender pioneer Renee Richards and Hari Nef, a 24-year-old transgender actress and model. Their diverging approaches highlighted a tension and real conflict within the gender revolution.
On the one hand, Richards emphasized the essential nature of gender identity, underscoring that gender was binary: male and female get at the core of our very being. The documentary seemed to agree, insofar as it highlighted medical studies that indicate a variety of possible biological causes for gender dysphoria, including causes in utero, certain brain differences, and genetic factors. And the stories of intersex and transgender persons also emphasized that the sense of being one gender or the other was not simply a passing phase. In the words of one transgender girl, “I’m a girl in my heart and brain.” If this is a gender revolution, it is one that reinforces, rather than deconstructs, a male-female binary and the notion that this gender identity goes to the core of who we are.
On the other hand, Hari Nef’s approach to gender was quite different. For her, gender should be seen as merely “wisps of smoke,” a kind of transient identity that changes and shifts over time. Indeed, her goal with respect to gender identity is “a world that chills out.” This approach seemed more consistent with a group of featured Yale students, who embraced a more nonbinary and fluid approach to gender.
We both receive our gendered identity and are called to make something of that identity.
But Nef’s statement was jarring, especially after having heard the personal stories in the documentary. If gender is so fluid and transient, why would a man choose gender reassignment surgery after 45 years of marriage? What of the story of David Reimer, the subject of an experiment meant to prove gender malleability, only to have it result in a lifetime of pain and struggle?
I do not know if or how advocates of a gender revolution would sort out this tension. But perhaps, from a Christian perspective, both Richards and Nef are onto something. Nef is right that a nuanced approach to gender must avoid naïve gender essentialism, where we mistake culturally specific gender expressions for the essence of what it means to be male or female. (Blue is for boys! Pink is for girls!) But Richards is also correct that a strict social constructivism (which sees gender as nothing more than a social construct) misses the way gender seems to be inscribed into the core of who we are.
To navigate this tension, Christians must simultaneously affirm the givenness of who we are as male and female, while also affirming the call in creation to develop culture, which includes what it means to be “male” and “female.” Proper culture-making includes gender-making. This is not a blank check to do whatever we want. Rather, we both receive our gendered identity and, collectively and individually, are called to make something of that identity.
If this is true, then Christians need to be able to listen patiently and sort through the complicated medical, relational, and theological questions related to intersex and transgender persons. For making something of those gender identities is a communal project that requires the church body to be engaged. To do that, we must put on our identity in Christ, so that we listen, think, and act with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we do that, we will be used by God to bring healing, and to bear witness to the ultimate identity revolution that is found only in Christ.