Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Male and Female He Created Them": The Theology of Gender Complementarity and the Biological Fact of Intersex

"Male and female he created them": what could be simpler? The idea that the neat, binary arrangement of . . . everything . . . into complementary genders is perhaps the most important thing the Christian tradition has to say to the world has become a mantra of contemporary right-wing Christians, including many Catholics. The mantra is not merely an observation about how these believers imagine the world is made: it's a command. It's an order to . . . everyone . . . to submit to their idea of how the world is to be arranged. Or else.

The video at the head of the posting: Australia's National Institute for Challenging Homophobia (NICHE) is working now to gather the testimony of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and intersected Australians, and to preserve this testimony in video form. In the video above, an intersexed person, Tony, tells his/her story.

Tony was born both male and female. "Male and female he created them": this is, quite literally, an accurate biological description of Tony's biological reality and the biological reality of a distinct subset of the human population. The mantra, "Male and female he created them," which is a command to choose either male or female and submit to the behavioral imperatives that many Christians believe are inscribed in the biological fact of gender, doesn't work at all in the case of this subset of the human community.

Unless in chanting that mantra as a command to the world we mean that intersexed individuals are commanded by God to access both the male and the female sides of their biological nature, which, in the imagining of conservative Christians, must dictate the behavior of men and women in the world, since men must act like men and women must act like women, or the world will cease to function properly.

It's perhaps no accident that the many right-wing Christians now screaming that the message of the Christian gospels is all about how God made everything male and female and commanded us to obey this biological imperative simply ignore the reality of intersex. They have no option except to pretend that nothing in the natural world muddles the simplicity of their binary scheme for things--a binary scheme for things they attribute to the divine will, as if God's most pressing concern in the world is to enforce gender conformity (and, it goes without saying, the domination by heterosexual men of everyone else in the world).

Catholics, in particular, claim that their attachment to the notion of gender complementarity--"male and female he created them" as both a biological description of things, and a command about how we must behave--is rooted in natural law. Catholics claim that they have arrived at the notion of gender complementarity as both description and prescription by carefully observing how the natural world functions, since in the natural world and how it behaves, we can find a divine script written by the Creator into the natural arrangement of things.

This reasoning assumes that how nature behaves is how God set things up to behave. 

If we follow this reasoning in the case of intersexed individuals, as we must do if we're to follow the logic of Catholic natural-law theory with any rigor and consistency, where do we end up? The only possible place to end up is with the conclusion that God makes some people both male and female.

At the same time. Simultaneously male and female. This is a fact of nature, and any dispassionate observation of how the natural world will discover it as easily as it will also discover that the animal kingdom is chock-full of examples of animals behaving homosexually, and with seeming abandon.

And this implies, of course, that God wants to create some of us intersexed.

If that's the case, then the only possible deduction to draw from this fact of nature is that God is perhaps far less fixated than many of us humans are on reading biological gender as a command about how we must behave: about to whom we must yield and submit; about who has the right to dominate and who is called to obey; about who rules and who should be the subject of rule, etc.

The fixation on gender complementarity in large sectors of contemporary Christianity--which is to say, the fixation on heterosexual males' right to dominate women and men regarded as less than manly--is nothing short of idolatrous. It takes a sub-narrative of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, one that is strongly challenged by Jesus's own egalitarian behavior, and raises it to the level of the most central affirmation to be found in the entire canon of scripture.

It treats heterosexual male domination of others as an articulus stantis et cadentis--the central doctrinal affirmation on which the continuance of the church and the integrity of its proclamation of the gospel rise and fall. In behaving this way, it enshrines as gospel teaching the core values of patriarchal cultures that the gospel exists to critique, not to bless.

This approach to the question of gender and gender roles, which is very deeply woven into Catholic psyches mesmerized by the notion that human beings exist primarily to procreate, and that women therefore exist primarily to do the bidding of men, inflicts tremendous pain on many human beings around the world. And I frankly don't see many of the current clerical leaders of the Catholic church, who have, after all, usually spent most of their lives in an all-male club that accords them astonishing power and privilege simply because they're male and ordained, beginning to reflect on the pain that the crude biologistic fixation of Catholic teaching on gender inflicts on many people.

Nor do I see many Catholics who are entirely comfortable with the notion that heterosexual men are meant to rule the world and to dominate women and men they regard as less than manly thinking very much at all about the hurt their taken-for-granted assumptions about gender and gender roles create for many people. There has always been in every religious tradition in the world, as the shadow side of religious faith, a certain thrill or kick at the notion of imposing our beliefs on others as divine commands.

That thrill is almost palpable today in the behavior of right-wing Christians who are intent on forcing men to act like men and women to act like women--for men and women to obey their right-wing notion of male-female behavior--in the name of a divine taskmaster they have imagined as the author of their culturally determined patriarchal assumptions. I don't see any of this thrill diminishing anytime soon in significant sectors of the Catholic church, either--not after John Paul II elevated this nonsense to the very center of Catholic thought in the late 20th century with his theology of the body.

Meanwhile, Tony responds to this nonsense with the following interesting testimony: "Lots of people ask why we need to have an I in the GLBT community, and I say, 'Our community was just screaming to have a vowel.'" Interesting testimony that I read, as a Christian, as an invitation to view the world as more of an unfinished project than many of my conservative co-religionists imagine it to be--one still susceptible to love and healing, susceptible to the loving and healing creative involvement of human beings in the divine co-creation of a yet-to-be-finished world.

Love and healing: and fewer barked-out imperatives to do things my way or else . . . . That's what the Christian gospels are clearly all about.

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