Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is Gender Real?

On Monday, August 12th, California became the first state to pass a law allowing K-12 students in public schools to access whichever restroom and locker room they want. The law will also allow students to choose whether they want to play girls’ sports or boys’ sports based on their self-perception and regardless of their birth gender.

Making the Climb
Imagine a ten year-old girl standing before a rock wall. On the rock wall are 50 handholds, intended to assist her in the ascent. Her gym teacher says to her, "Go ahead and climb." But then, before she begins, the gym teacher says, "Hold on a moment. I am pretty sure some of those handholds are not reliable. They look like they could support your weight, but they will simply fall off if you grab them. I don't want you to be fooled by them, so I am going to go ahead and remove them."
After removing the faulty handholds, the teacher says, "Now we're ready. Go ahead." But then suddenly says, "Hold on. If some of those handholds were unreliable, I wonder if any of them are solid. I don't want you to count on a handhold when it won't support you. So, here is what we will do: I will remove all the handholds. That way you won't be fooled by any of them. You won't assume that there is anything upon which you can rely." Then, after removing the rest of the handholds, the teacher turns to the girl and says, "Okay, now get climbing."
The above illustration could be applied to the way our culture approaches many issues. We enjoy deconstruction. We like to look at assumptions and tear them down so that we can start from scratch. We like to question even our most sacred cows. This applies to religions, politics, the nature of humanity, and just about everything else. While there is something positive about questioning assumptions, tearing down is destructive if it is not followed with a sense of rebuilding. We want to remove the unreliable handholds, but we still need handholds. If nothing is solid, then we cannot climb.
I think this illustration has special significance for the new law concerning transgender students. While its intent is to accommodate students who feel disenfranchised, it does this at a steep price. It tells children that gender is not a real thing.

Given or Chosen?
Imagine that I said to you, “I am technically white, but I feel like in the deepest part of me I am black. So, I want to be able to mark ‘African-American’ on my job applications and I want to be free to apply for scholarships that are offered to minorities.” I would imagine that you (and everyone in America) would be offended by this. Rightfully so. Then, if I said, “Why can’t I just decide that I am not really white?” you would confront me with the objective realities about my ethnicity. I can’t just change my race by a decision of my will. The reason is that race is something real, not something that is perceived.
This new California law, in essence, says that gender is not real because it can be changed by the decision of the will. If it is no longer useful to us then we can discard it like an outfit that no longer fits. If a boy says, "I want to be treated like a girl," what do we say? If we took the above logic from the race example, we would say, "I understand that you may feel like a girl, but the reality is that you are a boy. There are certain objective realities outside of yourself that inform us of this reality. I am willing to talk to you about how you are feeling, but we are going to treat you like a boy because that is what you are." However, in the logic of this new law, we now say, "If you want to be treated like a girl, then we will treat you like a girl." The not-so-subtle message is that gender is utterly incidental to who we are. It was not given to us. It is chosen by us.
Actually, what I just said is not completely accurate. The message is not that gender doesn't matter. Gender can matter . . . if a person decides that it matters. If being a boy matters to a child, then he can fully enjoy being a boy. If a girl is enthusiastic about being a girl, then she is free to act in light of this. Boys and girls are both welcome to make gender important to themselves. They are also open to define masculinity and femininity however they wish. This reflects the broader treatment of objective truth of our Western culture. Is gender important? Only if it is important to you.

Is Gender Real?
Over the years, there certainly have been unhelpful stereotypes about men and women. There have been assumptions that have caused damage and confusion. Those should be torn down. They are unstable handholds that will not help children understand reality. But we are now in the process of removing all the handholds. 
We started by saying, "Don't trust every assumption about gender. There is nothing strange about a boy writing poetry. There is nothing wrong with a girl liking sports. Some of those past assumptions are not helpful." But now we are saying, "There is nothing you can trust when it comes to gender. There is no starting point. You simply start from scratch and decide how you think gender fits into your life." This is the same as removing all the handholds and then asking the child to climb the wall.
Are we really at the point of concluding that there is nothing we can objectively say about masculinity and femininity? If so, then this is very sad. This is a disservice to our children. We are not helping them by removing faulty handholds unless we replace them with something solid. We need to be able to say, "This is what it means to be a man, and this is what it means to be a woman." Otherwise we have told them that gender is not a real thing.

Many people have responded to this new law with fear that this will put students (especially young girls) in vulnerable positions. I share in this concern. I think voices need to be heard. There needs to be compassion for children wrestling with issues about their sexuality, but there also needs to be protection for students whose privacy would be violated through this law allowance.
But while I think one response is to step in the gap for vulnerable students, I think a door is opened for another response. Those of us who are Christians may end up finding ourselves as some of the few in our culture with something solid to say about masculinity and femininity. We don't want to erect unreliable hand holds just to have something to say, but through God's Word we are given a picture of God-given gender. We could end up being unique in our culture by presenting a solid and beautiful picture of how God created men and women as equal-yet-different creatures who bear his image.
In our current setting, it is all the more important that we give our children a solid understanding of manhood and womanhood. They certainly will not get this by default in our current cultural setting. A lot needs to be said about this, but I don't want to make this post so long that it is unreadable (hopefully I haven't already done this). I want to follow up with some specific thoughts about what Scripture says on this subject. But for now, I want to warn that the removal of deceptive handholds is only helpful is we can point to other handholds and say, "There! You can rely on that fully, and it will never crumble under your weight!"

1 comment:

  1. Well said Dan. Thank you for being such a bright light in this dark corner of the world.

    (Sidenote: I love reading your blog but I believe the background "red" is difficult for the eyes. Don't get me wrong, the wallpaper is beautiful...but the white on red triggers a headache for me. Just thought you might want to know)