Let’s talk about gender identity. Here’s a helpful quote from the American Psychological Association:
Gender identity is a component of gender that describes a person’s psychological sense of their gender. Many people describe gender identity as a deeply felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or a nonbinary gender (e.g., genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, agender, gender-fluid) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth, presumed gender based on sex assignment, or primary or secondary sex characteristics…. (https://apastyle.apa.org/style... accessed on 2/23/23)
Okay, that didn’t really clarify anything. Am I the only one that finds that the more people talk about gender, the less sense it makes? Why don’t we start by looking at “sex assigned at birth”? The word sex most properly means the division of species into male and female. Most living things have DNA which is like a blueprint for life. In plants and animals, the DNA is organized into chromosomes which reside in the nucleus of each cell. Humans have 22 numbered pairs of chromosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes (XX or XY), for a total of 46. The pairs come from separate parents, which means that half the chromosomes in your cells came from your mother half from your father.
What as a sex chromosome? “A sex chromosome is a type of chromosome involved in sex determination. Humans and most other mammals have two sex chromosomes, X and Y, that in combination determine the sex of an individual. Females have two X chromosomes in their cells, while males have one X and one Y.” (https://www.genome.gov/genetic... accessed on Feb 22, 2023).
Your life began when a tiny human egg was fertilized by one tiny human sperm. The egg contained 22 chromosomes and one X chromosome from your mother. The sperm contained the other 22 chromosomes and either an X or a Y (your father has one of each). That sperm would determine if you became male or female. As one 6th grade boy commented, “If you have a Y, you’re a guy.” Your being male or female was determined, not at the moment you were born, but at the very moment you were conceived. Because every cell contains the same genetic code, every cell in your body is marked as male or female. Your sex doesn’t change; it will remain constant until you die.
The Bible teaches this same truth in a poetic way. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27, RSV translation)
So what is “gender”? New Oxford American Dictionary contains this usage note on gender: “The word gender has been used since the 14th century as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter in some languages. The sense denoting biological sex has also been used since the 14th century, but this did not become common until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex are often used interchangeably, they have different connotations; sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender more often refers to cultural and social differences and sometimes encompasses a broader range of identities than the binary of male and female.”
Gender has been used to refer to cultural norms surrounding sex, such as the expectations for dress, work, or the kind of names that were typically given to a boy or a girl. The fact that pink is associated with girls and blue with boys, for example, is a social construct and has no inherent link to biology. In the last couple decades, however, we have begun to lose any sense of the biological roots of male and female. The language of “sex assigned at birth” implies that sex is arbitrary and can be changed at will. Does the M or F on your birth certificate really have no inherent meaning? Is it wise to let people go back and change their birth certificate to whatever letter they prefer, or to write in any letter of the alphabet? There is strong scientific evidence for dividing bathrooms and sports teams based on biology rather than “felt identity.” Do we only “follow the science” when it matches our feelings?
We need a healthy conversation about what it means to be man and woman. We also need to listen to people who struggle with their bodies and don’t feel comfortable in traditional roles. But we cannot have a good conversation if we don’t know what it is we are actually talking about.
Fr. Joel Sember
Author's note: This article was published in the Antigo Times on 3 March 2023 as a "Clergy Corner" guest column. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding identity and sexuality. I find that clarity regarding the biological realities is really important for a good, honest discussion. I think it is important to reclaim the word "sex" in it's basic meaning as "male" and "female." That means using other words for sexual activity, such as "physical intimacy" or "conjugal love."