Friday, 12 August 2016

Intersex: A Challenge to Conservative/Orthodox Christianity?

Intersexuality is a relatively new area of discussion for Gender and Sexuality theorists to analyse and dissect. It seems even more baffling to those who identify with the existence of a concrete deity. Christians seem to be having a rather hard time accepting the existence of a number of different chromosomal patterns existing within the traditionally binary codes of "male" and "female" as proved by Geneticists over the past century or so. Intersex individuals cannot be explained away with recourse to "gender identity choice" and therefore cannot be seen as choosing an "evil" abnormal path in life as Pope Benedict XVI hoped to do when he dismissed Gender Studies as such a challenge to standard world order that it could lead "to the destruction of the human race".

As a Lutheran Christian who had spent eons at school studying "The Bible" in detailed form after GCSE and A Level Religious Studies, I am familiar with the "In the beginning man made man and woman" Genesis spiel endlessly being brought up by orthodox Christians to defend the binary argument. Yet I wonder if we as Christians place too much emphasis on superficial biological differences to hang onto a sense of normalisation. After the Epic Fall documented in Genesis how do we know what the perfect form of "man" or "woman" is if we have not seen those perfect forms in the flesh and when we haven't been told definitively by God what chromosomal characteristics make up this supposed perfect form? I'm reminded of a Christian interpretation of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", where we, the "untutored in God's true Forms of things" can only see imperfections of the forms of things that exist perfectly in Heaven; we are looking at the "shadows" of perfection and perhaps we will only know the absolute truth about Gender and Sexuality when we break free from our chains (die) and ascend to Heaven.

It's very fair to say intersex individuals have no "celebrity figurehead" in which to gain world attention from Christians and other faith groups. Trans people did kinda "struck it lucky" to have Caitlyn Jenner coming out the closet in such a provocative and sassy way using reality TV to great effect to convey her message of tolerance and compassion for trans individuals pre and during the surgical stage. However, there are theologians and ordinary worshippers who have tried to raise awareness about intersexuality and the need for Christians to address the issue of authenticity and acceptance. For example, Megan DeFranza has dedicated her most recent book Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, to looking at sexual differences when related to Scripture. With regards to the Genesis argument made to the binary form of "Adam and Eve", DeFranza states that they are not so much binary prototypes but can be interpreted as "the fountainhead of others who may become more "other" than their parents could ever have conceived". Genesis is only the start of our journey of self-realisation as Christians. DeFranza is right to suggest that the authors of Genesis probably spoke about the creation story in general terms; she concedes that to ancient readers and adherents of Judaism and Christianity, they wouldn't have been aware of chromosomal abnormalities but only of physical differences -e.g. absence of genitals. DeFranza contends that the fact that Jesus made such a strong reference to the existence of natural-born "Eunuchs" in Matthew. 19:12 -"some are born eunuchs" shows the Bible (and by inference, God) has made space for those who do not fit conventional understandings of binary biology. Jews made space for such eunuchs within their community and borrowed from laws designed for men and women to protect them. So perhaps it is no surprise why intersex people might feel alienated by Conservative Christian communities that refuse to adapt laws to protect them. It seems they "matter less" and Christians have been comfortable shunning them without bothering to show the love and compassion shown towards the Ethiopian Eunuch by when he was the first Gentile to be baptised as documented in Acts 8. DeFranza thus describes Biblical interpretation as an aid to self exploration and creation of personal identity: "Sex identity as male or female may be essential to personal identity. But there are more essentials than these two."

Examining Intersex Christian Testimonies: Lianne Simon

Lianne Simon is an Intersex Christian blogger I've recently come across when carrying out research on intersexual issues. A key blog post I found fascinating was from 2014 - "The Church And Different Forms of Sex Development" where Simon responded to a resolution being put forward by the ultra US conservative evangelical Southern Baptist Church, who have an unsavoury history of protesting celebrity funerals at will because they "made the Devil's music" or whatever to persecute transgender people. Simon was concerned that the resolution would not only affect those who choose to identify as a different gender, but also those with chromosomal differences. So she uses Biblical verses to try and defend intersex people and get Christian worshippers to espouse more of a compassionate view of them.

For example, Simon examines the cases of "barren women" in the Bible. She states that there are "usually biological reasons for infertility" and that a woman with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (where a woman is diagnosed as XY because she has testes in her abdomen rather than ovaries and a uterus) may never know she has the condition because her body can't react to androgens but can to estrogen and this can create an appearance of going through normal puberty without menstruation. Nowhere in the Bible is there a condemnation of barrenness in women; Isiah 54 even tells women to celebrate barrenness- "burst into song" because they will bring more joy to children than women who are married! Maybe a bit of Scripture hyperbole but how can orthodox Christians attack intersex people brought up as women who could not help her biological differences!

Ironically Simon highlights a personal case of compassion that was shown to her by a Southern Baptist preacher in the late 1960's when she self-identified as a gay/queer man and introduced her to Christianity to help her combat suicidal thoughts. However Simon says that the preacher did not view her as "some despised Samaritan", (recalling the Parable of the Good Samaritan where an enemy of the Jews was helped by an ordinary Jew following Jesus's teaching that we should help our enemies  regardless of religious and political differences) but more "one more sinner in need of the grace of God". Simon now lives as a woman and is happily married, yet she refuses to ignore her intersexuality. She embraces her characteristics and doesn't have to refer to herself as transgender because "most trans people have typical sex markers (e.g. gonads/genitals) that identify with each other" which is a fair and honest reflection of the differences I noticed in my last blog post:


I tend to agree with DeFranza's narrative reading of exploration of identity and faith as evolving as you read through the Bible, mirroring the passage of humanity through time as more people become aware of God's desire to show compassion and humility rather than be vengeful and destructive. As we veer further away from the act of Original Sin towards the Day of Judgement, DeFranza says that "God brings in more and more outsiders so that God's house can become a "house of prayer for all people". If that is the case, then those who adhere to orthodox forms of Christianity have to accept differences that are being revealed to us through scientific study. For if God created Charles Darwin and thus introduced the world to Evolutionary Theory, perhaps God was showing us the key as to how he managed to carry out his creation in the first place and has offered us a stake in that process to benefit humanity and get us closer to those "perfect forms of knowledge" that we endlessly seek. Intersex people are a blessing and deserve our compassion and respect, not our indignation and disgust.