Gender Identity vs. Personal Identity— What is It and who Decides?

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The giant kerfuffle recently over bathrooms in North Carolina and who gets to use which ones is a tip of the iceberg kind of thing, revealing to us where our glacial culture is drifting. If we are looking at and for underlying causes to what is going on, at the bottom of the well seems to be that little notion of ‘the right to self determination’. It is the voice that says ‘I am who I say I am’ regardless of what other says, and in some cases regardless of the biological facts.

Today, if you look up the phrase ‘gender identity’ in the dictionary, what you read there might not only seem counter-intuitive, it may seem to flatly contradict what this phrase once meant. What the phrase used to mean, at least in many contexts, was a person’s identity as determined by their gender, which in turn was taken to mean their sexual identity— something determined by those X and Y chromosomes which produce male or female features including male and female genitalia.

Today when you read the dictionary under the heading gender identity it says, and I quote “one’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither.” In other words how a person conceives of themselves, calls themselves, and self identifies. Another popular definition you’ll find in a dictionary is “one’s personal experience of one’s own gender”. What these two definitions have in common is that they are based on the notion of self-determination— ‘I am what and who I say I am’ (and don’t confuse me with possible contradictory facts). Whether we are talking about ‘innermost concepts or ‘personal experience’ it comes down to how one thinks or feels about oneself.

You will notice that nowhere in these definitions is the matter of cognitive distortions, or illogical thinking, or delusions brought up. That would be pejorative, unkind, unfair. The assumption is that whether we agree with a persons ‘innermost concept’ or ‘personal experience’ or not we should just accept that a person’s gender identity is what they claim it is. End of story, right of self-determination is the bottom line. It seems like an American idea whose time has come, to many in this country, which defines itself on the basis of ‘my rights’ as opposed to ‘my reality or responsibilities’.

Leaving aside altogether the issue of people who are sadly born with deformities, such as being born with both male and female genitalia, it ought to seem axiomatic to all of us, as it is to many many scientists, notably biologists (and my wife is one), that while many factors go into making up personal identity, when one discusses gender identity, at the most fundamental level it has something to do with how gender in part determines one’s identity. One isn’t a man merely because ‘that’s how I feel about myself or think of myself’, one is a man in part because that’s what my sexual nature, my chromosomes etc. tell me.

If human sexual identity is not at least part and parcel of the definition of gender identity…. then frankly we are far down the road to major cognitive distortions about the reality of things. I understand very well that human beings are complex. It’s not just one’s DNA and chromosomes and genitalia that define who we are. But when we start defining ourselves against the physical evidence, against what our bodies tell us, then frankly anything is possible when it comes to self definition. Frankly, the pastoral side of me is deeply worried about self-determination run amuck which leads people to have major psychological problems and distortions about their identity. One could paraphrase C.S. Lewis who once warned, ‘just because someone sincerely thinks of themselves and deeply believes they are a poached egg, doesn’t make them a poached egg.’ There has to be some objective criteria to determine gender identity, not merely self-perception or ‘how I feel about myself’. Why?

The first reason why is because feelings while they can be intense and genuine are a notably bad guide to reality, to truth, to what is good. The other day I watched a program where a black journalist was interviewing a white supremacist. The white man seemed calm, cool, and reasonably rational, and there was no doubting his sincerity when he said “black people are simply not meant to be in law enforcement, they don’t have the constitutional personal discipline to do the job right”. That deserves a wow of course. But the man was utterly convinced and deeply believed he was right. Feelings can be deep, they can come from the innermost part of who a person is, they can be profound, and they can be no reliable guide to what is true about others as well as what is true about one’s self. Self-perception must be balanced with how others perceive us or else our narcissism reigns supreme.

And that brings me to the second poison poured into our current cultural stew— narcissism. It’s not just self-determination that is stirring up things in our cultural drift, it is pure narcissism. Self-centered behavior based in a self-centered world view. Whatever else one may wish to say about this, it is certainly not Christian. The Christian believes that their nature and identity are found not in self but firstly in the creation order, and secondly in Christ. As Paul puts it ‘if anyone is in Christ, they are a whole new creature’. The new creation doesn’t simply replace the old one, it renews it to its original divinely intended purpose. The creation is redeemed in Christ, and the proper creation order is reaffirmed in Christ. One of the most misquoted verses in the NT is Gal. 3.28 which does not read in the Greek ‘there is neither male nor female’. It says ‘there is no male AND female’, and by that Paul means that it is not necessary for men and women to be united (in marriage) in Christ to be in Christ. It is o.k. to be either single or married in the Lord. One of the radically new things about Christianity is that it gave men and women an opportunity to serve God with or without having to be married and raise a physical family. This was different from the dominate views in early Judaism, and it meant the possibility of new roles for women apart from being wives and mothers.

The other serious problem with our whole current discussion of ‘gender identity’ is we seem to have forgotten entirely what the prophet warns us about the human heart. Left to its own devices it is prone to self-deception because it is ‘the heart turned in upon itself’ or as Jeremiah says “the heart is deceitful above all things” (17.9). Feelings cannot be relied up as a good guide to who we are because they can be genuine, and totally misleading. And self-perception is guided far to much in our experiential age by feelings. No one should think they can decide for themselves what their gender identity is without some serious reflection about what friends and family and psychologists and pastors and basic biology tell them is the truth about their identity. It is simply not necessarily true that ‘I am what I think or feel I am’. Human beings were made for relationship from the beginning and it is in relationship and with the guidance of others including God that we learn our identity.

Think on these things.

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