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Gender, sex and politics: A Christian lens

Thursday, 19 May 2022  | Nicole Jameson

When Jesus sends out the Twelve to proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven has come near, he instructs them to be ‘as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16). Jesus is well aware of the mix of religion, culture and power into which he is sending his followers - and how brutal this may be for them as people who are representing Jesus and his polarising, often unwelcome approach to life and truth.

Like the disciples, we find ourselves as sheep among wolves when we step into the political arena. Participating in our contemporary society and culture as Christian citizens is complex, even more so in a media landscape where headlines and algorithms distort in order to feed on the ensuing conflict. In his article ‘Culture Wars and Partisan Politics: how should Christians vote’, Tom Barker is wise in encouraging believers to have our eyes wide open as we approach the polls, and considerate in his discussion of the way we use our political power.

In this article, I would like to pick up Barker’s commentary on one particular ‘wedge’ – that of transgender rights. Barker rightly points out the cynical way in which the Liberal party has used, even weaponised, the selection of Warringah candidate Kath Deves. He also highlights some of the impact of the inflammatory media coverage of her comments on transgender people and women’s rights. In my experience, however, the story begins far beyond the headlines and polarising commentary, in a place where many people are experiencing hurt and confusion or facing profound social and relational change amidst significant misunderstanding and miscommunication.

The issue of gender identity and the claims of the trans rights movement is extraordinarily complicated - or at the very least, it is difficult for many people to understand the language and concepts, navigate reductive or inflammatory commentary and have the kind of thoughtful, good faith discussion necessary for good understanding to occur. Given that this issue is impacting so many aspects of our society and relationships, I’d like to a step back from what we may have heard about gender identity to discuss some of the basic terms and issues being discussed. I hope this can then provide us with a sound starting point to develop an informed opinion in regard to the ‘gender debate’, as we navigate this issue in our wider community and potentially at the polls.

What are sex, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity?

Sex (a biological category), sexual orientation (romantic and sexual attraction), gender (a societal role) and gender identity (a sense of self) are not synonymous.

Human beings are sexually dimorphic, a species with two sex categories - male and female, each possessing different characteristics necessary for reproduction. We are also mammals, as denoted by the presence of mammary glands in the female of the species which produce milk to nourish infants. Sex is determined at conception,[1] however human beings are sexually immature until puberty, when we go through a process of physiological and emotional change. In this process, ‘secondary sex characteristics’(e.g., breasts, facial hair) develop, resulting in bodies that are visibly more distinct as male and female.

Sexual attraction or orientation can be described as a person’s pattern of sexual attraction to other people. Heterosexuality refers to opposite sex attraction, homosexuality refers to same sex attraction (gay or lesbian) and bisexuality refers to attraction to both sexes.

While ‘gender’ has often been used as a coy euphemism for biological sex - male or female - gender is better understood as referring to the ‘masculine' and ‘feminine’ social roles and cultural meaning attached to being male or female, rather than intrinsic to the people in those categories. While gender roles vary widely across cultures and history, they are typically closely linked to reproductive status and they function to set social and behavioural norms expected of members of each sex. In most cultures, violating gender roles is a transgressive act and likely to result in social penalties of some kind.

‘Gender identity’ can be described as a person’s internal sense of themself as a man, a woman, both or neither. It is a relatively new concept, as described by Gribble et al (2022): ‘The concept of gender identity originated in the 1960s in the United States of America (USA), was refined in the 1990s through a postmodern philosophy called Queer Theory and continues to evolve. Central to Queer Theory are the twin propositions that both sex and gender are socially constructed, and that gender is the more important of the two’.[2] While some maintain that everybody has a gender identity, this is clearly not the case. If a person has a gender identity that they experience as being in conflict with their biological sex, they may be described as ‘transgender’. Such individuals may hormonally or surgically ‘transition’ in an attempt to bring bodily appearance and their perception of their gender identity into alignment. However, they may take no steps to change their body or appearance in any way.

What is the problem?

Controversy or disagreement regarding concepts of masculinity and femininity, sexuality or various aspects of gendered roles is not new. Even in the church we have engaged in decades-long debates regarding the status of women, male headship and same sex relationships - just to name a few examples!

What is new, at least to the public conversation in Australia, is the emerging claim that concepts of gender identity should replace biological sex in language, law and our interactions with each other. This change is typically advocated on the basis of diversity, equality and inclusion, specifically for the benefit of members of our society who prefer to understand themselves on the basis of gender identity rather than biological sex. People who identify as transgender, non-binary or gender diverse are frequently described as a vulnerable or marginalised group, for whose sake social change is required.

While the goal of inclusion and diversity is admirable, what has resulted is a series of conflicting claims, competing rights and unintended consequences. This is because replacing sex with gender identity in language is a massive change and it risks overriding needs and vulnerabilities that are based in the sex of individuals.

The most serious conflicts have consistently arisen with regard to the status of women and girls, and whether they should be interpreted as people who are members of the female sex or people whose sense of themselves is as a girl or woman. Advocates for women’s rights argue that, in order to effectively provide for and protect women and girls, it is essential to maintain a sexed definition of ‘women’ in legislation and policy and to maintain the ability to use sex-based language. However, some advocates for transgender rights argue that this is exclusionary and causes harm. The conflict over these incompatible claims can be seen in the controversy over women’s sports, single sex services and facilities such as toilets or prisons, the language of maternity care and even abortion.

Another issue that is particularly controversial is claims regarding the gender identity of children and young people. Here, too, we see the conflict between biology and gender identity arising in incompatible positions - if gender identity is innate, then we have a duty of care to prioritise and affirm a child’s gender identity. Thus, hormone treatments and surgery should be understood as therapeutic and potentially essential to relieve discomfort and distress. That such treatments may prevent the development of, or remove, a child or young person s fertility for example, may be deemed reasonable if gender identity is fixed and more important than sex. But if biological sex is our touchstone, we are likely to consider the best approach to caring for such children and young people to be support in their feelings of incongruence, and acceptance of the body they inhabit, and to view treatments that alter those bodies as unnecessary or even grievous harm. Examples of situations where we have seen this conflict play out are with regard to school programs about gender and sexuality, children’s gender clinics or debate regarding Medicare provisions for hormone treatments and surgical procedures.

So what are Christians to make of this?

Sorry - this is not the point where I tell you who to vote for! The issue of biological sex and gender identity is resulting in significant challenges to political parties and institutions not just in Australia but internationally. And Christians certainly have a diversity of views on this matter. Rather than telling you what to think, I would prefer to suggest some principles regarding how we think and interact, as we seek to form a view on this complex and charged issue through the perspective of our faith in Jesus.

1. Remember that God knows what it means to be male and female (even when we don’t)

Open your Bible! From the very beginning, God tells us about the goodness in which he created people male and female in His image… followed by the Fall, when people’s understanding of ourselves and each other was broken and distorted. Is it really so surprising that humans would experience discomfort and distress in our bodies, theorise about what it means to be men and women, or attempt versions of justice which create more problems than are solved? Whether you are male or female, grappling with gender identity for reasons personal or political, I encourage you to root your identity in the Lord, and take heart in the knowledge that the messiness of this issue will be resolved - a promise secured in Jesus.

2. Check your sources

As Christians, we are a people who know what it means for the truth to be revealed by reliable source material. But political agendas and spin can make it slippery to grasp who or what to believe – particularly when the media is feeding controversy. When you see gender identity discussed, it’s worth resisting the react buttons and taking some time to probe what is being said. What evidence is being used to substantiate the argument being made? Is a quote in context? Do a diverse variety of sources support the story or offer other angles? Is a professional lobbying organisation involved, and how is this group funded? Just as we hold up claims about Jesus to the Bible, we can take care to ensure our opinions are founded in truth.

3. Talk about it

If you start a debate trying to win or prove you’re right - have a word with yourself! But more often, people simply feel anxious that they might cause offence if they discuss gender identity, particularly if they don’t know the views of others. Some people worry they might be labelled a bigot; other people might be concerned about causing distress. But this issue is too important not to talk about - and I don’t just mean online. Try to have a conversation which gives you an opportunity to hear what others think about sex and gender identity, and why. Bring your thoughts and questions to God in prayer! And ask your friends, ask your family, ask your local candidate. But when you do…

4… Be gracious

A good faith conversation seeks to honestly understand what another person is saying, assumes a charitable version of both them and the point they are arguing, and avoids being provocative or inflammatory. You don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, or convince others you are right - rather, be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19). Even if you find yourselves holding polarised perspectives, you are likely to have common values such as caring for others or protecting vulnerable people - just with different views on how to achieve those. Seek neither to offend or be offended, hold other people in respect as creatures dear to the Lord and remember that in all your interactions you represent Jesus in your words and deeds.

You may find yourself frustrated that I haven’t nailed my own views on gender identity to the wall. Rest assured that I certainly have strong opinions, am happy to share them and have made my share of mistakes (especially on social media)! What I wish to encourage here is that as believers we take the same care in our understanding and navigation of political and social issues, as we do with our conviction in the Lord. Is our goal to be Christians, or victors in a culture war that may not even be the kind of battle we think we are fighting? Let us be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves, indeed.


Nicole Jameson is a Wollongong based mum of four. She has a Master of International Public Health, a Cert IV in Breastfeeding Education (counselling), a keen interest in the determinants of maternal and child health and a desire to see healthy conversations on difficult topics.


Photo credits

Carlos de Toro - https://unsplash.com/photos/RwfoOIv2g4A

Harry Quan - https://unsplash.com/photos/G1iYCeCW2EI

[1] Various disorders of sexual development (sometimes known as intersex conditions) can occur, however people with intersex characteristics are either male or female.

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