Where Logic Meets Love

Defining the "Sex" in Same-Sex Anything

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

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Defining the

Recently I watched a fantastic presentation that the Gay Christian Network did for Pepperdine University.

The first night, the GCN executive director (Justin Lee) and another guy from GCN named Ron talked about the issues on which they agree -- namely, that sexual orientation is not a choice and that Christians are called to love and welcome LGBTQ individuals in their churches.

The second night, they went in-depth in Scripture to discuss their disagreements, which revolve around whether those with same-sex attraction should be celibate or have God's blessing to be in a relationship with someone of the same sex. You can watch the videos here: Part 1 and Part 2.

There are a handful of Bible passages that are generally talked about as referencing sexual behavior between members of the same sex, and I've heard the meaning, context, translations, etc. of these debated many times. But Justin's argument was completely new to me, and it made me realize that there is a very large aspect of the "homosexuality debate" that is generally ignored altogether.

Before we can talk about whether "same-sex behavior" is sinful, we have to define biological sex. And then we have to define sexual behavior.

It's a lot easier to condemn same-sex attraction/behavior/whatever if you pretend like there are only two sexes: male and female. Then every possible couple would be composed of one of three combinations: a man and a woman, two men, or two women.

You are probably aware of individuals who are transgender, meaning they are designated as one sex at birth based on their genitalia, and their brain is wired to be another sex. There are also people who identify as genderqueer, which generally means they don't feel they are clearly male or female. Regardless of emerging brain science that backs up people's "feelings" of gender, this is not where I want to focus, because those who are hell-bent on condemning same-sex relationships are often the same ones insisting that people need to live in congruence with their biological sex no matter what.

But is biological sex that easily determined for everyone?

Let's get more specific: If you want to define me as female because of my body (and not because I psychologically identify as female), then what makes me female -- my vagina, my ovaries, or my chromosomes?

Is it my ovaries? An individual with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome is almost always designated as female at birth due to having a vagina. This is true even when the individual has a Y chromosome and testes. The individual develops female breasts but does not menstruate.

Is it my two X chromosomes? Not everyone has two sex chromosomes. Some have one, and some have three or four. This About.com article describes the different names given to these chromosome abnormalities, and they "helpfully" categorize the individuals in each situation as "male" or "female," depending (from what I can gather) on their genitalia.

Is it my vagina/vulva? If you aren't familiar with how the genitals develop in utero, I suggest this animation from the The Hospital for Sick Children that explains the various steps needed to develop typically male or female genitalia. You'll notice that there are quite a lot of steps that have to happen in order for full development into the traditional male and female reproductive systems. As you can imagine, this process doesn't always go as expected. The Intersex Society of North America has a long list of intersex conditions as well as those that aren't exactly intersex but aren't typical genital development either. Some individuals are born with genitalia that appears to include both traditional male and female genitalia, and some have genitalia that doesn't resemble either one.

The point is, anyone who wants to be in the business of dictating with whom another person is "allowed" to be romantically involved cannot simple ignore those individuals who don't fit our standard ideas of biological sex.

The simplistic -- I would say wrong -- answer is to insist that, just to be safe, anyone not presenting a standard biological sex should remain celibate. You're talking about real people's lives here! What about someone who identifies as female and seems to everyone to be biologically female, marries a man, and then discovers she has testes? Should she divorce her husband? Should her husband be immediately made to be celibate for the rest of his life so he can stay faithfully married to her? Who are you or I to make that decision?

So, to borrow an example from the Pepperdine talk, those who would condemn same-sex relationships say that if John and Sam have a loving, committed, selfless, God-centered relationship, and Sam is short for Samantha, God blesses the relationship, and if Sam is short for Samuel, God condemns the relationship. This, however, is predicated on the assumption that there are only two black-and-white boxes into which Sam can fall: male or female. But we know that's not the case.

I would ask, then, how male does Sam have to be before the relationship becomes "sinful"?

If you're looking solely to Scripture for your answer, you're not going to find it there.

Instead, what you find is a pattern: Lustful, selfish relationships are pretty much always described negatively; loving, committed, God-centered relationships are pretty much always described positively.

I'll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions from that. You already know what my conclusions are.

Up next: Defining "sexual behavior" and How should we talk about God's gender?

EDIT: I had this post ready to go up, and then John Green decided to post a video making essentially the same argument and then some. Watch it:


  1. Great post, this is exactly the sort of thing people who have issues with the gay- transgender community need to be thinking about. People often forget the development in the womb doesn't always run smoothly. When it comes to unusual productive organs, mistakes are often made. What if you parents decide you're a boy, when the doctors make them choose, but you're mentally really a girl? Are they sinful then? Should they 'learn to live with it'? It's easy to say that when you don't have to live in the wrong body. I once read a story in a magazine about a girl here who at 18 still hadn't had her period. Out of worry she went to the doctor to see if there was a problem. The problem was apparently that she had testicles inside her and no ovaries. Apparently nature intended her to be a boy, but the process failed along the way, and she ended up a girl. Doesn't make her any less of a girl if she identifies as one.
    It's the same with being gay, you're born with it. Perhaps to put it metaphorically a plug put in a different outlet during the development process. That's not the child's fault.
    People shouldn't be condemned for things they can't change or be forced to live a lie. I just think it's easier for people to find fault in others than in themselves.

    1. The ISNA has great information about why doctors should not perform cosmetic genital surgery on infants; this was traditionally done with the assumption that children could be raised as any gender and they would self-identify as that gender for life, but we know now that that's not the case.

  2. I'm so glad you posted this video! I posted it yesterday on my facebook as well, I absolutely love John and Hank. Hank did a video before John's also tackling this debate.

    I love this post because you are exactly right--so many people thinks it's a solid line when really it's a spectrum of gray. And I just wonder, how gray does it have to get before we will understand that the whole world, and all people, are so completely complex? It's never just that simple to define someone. And while your body is certainly a part of who you are, your mind is what concerns me more than anything. Otherwise, every physically disabled person in the world, regardless of mental capacity, would be considered "less than a person" because they would have essential body parts missing. Are you less human if you are missing an arm? A leg? Both legs? If a male soldier was wounded in war and lost part of his genitalia, would that take away his "male" status? What about the women in other war-torn countries that are subjected to genital mutilation? Do they become less "woman" because this happened to them and took away parts of their bodies? Defining sex by your skin and flesh just doesn't quite make sense. It's all about attraction to me. And I don't think God would disagree.

    1. Defining sex by your skin and flesh just doesn't quite make sense.
      I agree -- both because, as discussed here, "assigning" sex based on one's physical body is not as easy as it sounds, and because we now know that people have a psychological identification that is not always congruent with their physical body.

  3. Thank you for being an ally. I found you through your comment on RHD's blog.

    Normally, one can say what sex someone is accurately enough: the AIS woman is a woman despite her testes. The man who loses his testicles in an accident, or the woman who has had a hysterectomy and oopherectomy, is still a man or woman. Am I a woman? Dunno, really, does it matter? I am a trans woman, I use a female name, I express myself female, it is far more comfortable to me- but if someone wants to call me a "man" I am cool with that. Some people are so closed minded, and I do not have the energy to bother with such people.

    For me the issue is that morality is addressed to the person, and only the person. So whom I have sex with is an issue for me. Judge not. Beams and planks and motes. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Do not join the perfect church, for you will immediately make it imperfect; and therefore do not be overly concerned with your sisters' sins. You have enough trouble with your own. We are all seeking to grow in Christ.

    1. Ah, that is a discussion all its own, about whether we are called to draw attention to others' sins. I tend to fall into the "Judge not / you could spend your whole life removing the plank from your own eye" camp, but the difficulty of course is that there are also Scripture verses telling you that you have an obligation to keep your brother from sinning, and some people have latched onto those.

      I've found that "my Bible verse vs. your Bible verse" discussions rarely end well, so I tend to take a different approach to making people think.

  4. Nerdiah the AtheistMay 16, 2012 at 2:06 PM

    It's good to see Christians grappling with the science. Salvation may be black or white, but biology (almost) never is.

    1. Not sure that salvation is either :) But yes, I believe in seeking truth wherever it may be found, not solely from one source or another.

    2. Nerdiah the Atheist ("p > 0.05 ... bummer")May 17, 2012 at 6:31 PM

      One can go only half to Hell? Or some other proportion? Awesome, then I'll only be spending like, 97% of eternity in Hell, that won't be so bad :-D

    3. Well, there's the Catholic concepts of purgatory and limbo, which are different from heaven. There are people who believe the "final judgment" happens when you die, and those who believe it will happen with Jesus' Second Coming. Some people see Hell as a place of punishment, and some people see it more as an awareness of being separated from God. So it's not quite as simplistic as "Heaven or Hell." And that's not even getting into the issue of whether "salvation" comes from faith or works, if Jesus is the only path or one path... my mom had a book that highlighted the main theories about this, but I can't remember what it was called. I'll post it if I figure it out.

    4. Yes you are right, I had forgotten about the Catholic purgatory, and I've even met Christians who believe in reincarnation. So there is enough disagreement to say that the state of being saved is ambiguous, if not in actuality*, at least in our ability to discern it.

      (*Warning: May not be an actual actuality.)

      I was being a bit flippant with my comment, but there was a serious aspect underlying it. Religion typically has a lot to say about truth, not just any old truth but big-T Truth, transcendent, eternal, unchanging... The lists of commandments suggest that binary moral statements can not only be sensibly made but universalised across time and space. Even meta-statements like "love your neighbour" are implicitly universal and dichotomous, wouldn't you agree? Once the context-dependence about what it means to "love ... as yourself" is dealt with perhaps, it is a clear statement about what is right. The only religion that I can think of that doesn't do this is perhaps Taoism, but even its attempts to extract itself from duality runs afoul of the self-referencing paradox it tries to use: "the Tao that can be told is not the Tao", but Lao Tzu dude, you just told the Tao (good try though).

      All minds prefer binary logic (or their left-hemispheres do anyway), so perhaps it's unfair to concentrate blame on religion, but it's peculiarly in religion that these truths get ossified. It's not just a truth floating around anymore, ready to turn shades of grey with context, but the Truth you gotta *believe* if you want to get to heaven, or avoid purgatory, or not get reincarnated as a worm or something.

      So yeah, I do think it's a big deal that you are grappling with the shades of grey from a religious perspective. If religion is about transcendent truth, then I can admire a theist confronting the changeable and ambiguous nature of reality while holding on to the notion that transcendent truth is real. If for no other reason than because it looks like a difficult trick to pull-off.

    5. Well, thank you. This way of thinking certainly gets me into trouble with a lot of religious folks who think they already have all the answers -- well, non-religious folks too, actually. Anyone who thinks they have all the answers. I don't think it's a difficult trick at all to believe that there is some unchangeable Truth while acknowledging the ambiguity of real life. It's just a matter of admitting that we don't have, and will never have, all the answers, and we can only ever get closer to Truth if we're willing to consider and incorporate the totality of our life experiences rather than trying to fit new knowledge and new experiences into an existing framework.

  5. A lot of good points here!

    Here's another thing I think people need to consider: people always talk about how same-sex attraction is not a choice, that it's something people can't help. But what if it was a choice? Why would it be wrong for someone to choose that? A friend of mine who's a lesbian has asked this question because, although she doesn't think she consciously chose to be gay, she thinks that saying "they can't help being gay" implies that if someone were to choose it, it would be the wrong choice.

    1. I personally don't believe that it would be the wrong choice, but I think the reason it's emphasized so much is that people who believe that being gay is a sin can only logically make that argument if the person is actively choosing to be gay (i.e., to sin). If someone is born gay, then casting judgment on them and condemning them because of it suddenly makes as much sense as telling someone they're going to hell for having blue eyes. It changes the conversation when telling people "Just stop being gay" is not an option.

  6. I am honestly trying to listen and learn here, but I also still have a lot of questions.

    * How central is sexuality to personhood? Is sexuality something people are, or something they do?

    * Is everyone entitled to a legitimate sexual outlet? Is it a necessary part of being human? (What about the disabled, disfigured, or just plain unlucky?)

    * Are these cases where someone's biological sex is unclear more like being bad (or good) at math, or more like being born missing a foot? And why?

    * What is sexuality for? Why are we this way and not some other way? (I'm getting a picture of a Dilbert cartoon with Wally in his cubicle, trying to divide in two since he can't get a date. ;-) ) Is there such a thing as normal human sexuality?

    * Do you think all loving, committed relationships are OK? Multiple simultaneous partners? Closely-related partners? Why or why not?

    * Is it always unloving to ask celibacy of someone else? (What about, for instance, someone who is only attracted to children? Would it be wrong to expect them to be celibate?)

  7. I agree that there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to defining biological sex. I seem to recall a recent controversy about allowing track and field athletes who are physically women but chromosomatically male to participate with "women." However, I'd like to point out that these problems do involve a small percentage of the population. But when it comes to the majority of people who can be clearly classed as male or female, how does this change the discussion? I don't see how genetic problems legitimize homosexual relationships anymore than poverty legitimizes theft, food shortages legitimize mercy killing, skewed sex ratios legitimize polygamy, etc.

    1. The parallel examples you name are things that could be related, but aren't one and the same issue. The issue at hand here is that people want to say that your romantic relationship is (a) sinful or (b) not sinful based on your partner's biological sex. If it is truly that grave -- if the biological sex of my partner can determine whether or not I am sinning against God -- then biological sex must be exceedingly clear to determine, or else there must be clearly defined rules about every possible situation (chromosomal combinations, size of genitalia, etc.) in terms of whether or not that partnership is wrong. If that's not clear, then you run into the problem I talked about here, where you're telling people -- for example, an intersex person -- not to sin against God, and then providing zero guidance on whether being romantically involved with anyone at all would be sinning. Doesn't that seem cruel?

      People want to point to Scripture as the "rulebook" on what kind of partnerships are legitimate in God's eyes, yet there is no information at all about partnerships involving people with ambiguous biological sex. That, to me, says that "opposite-sex = good, same-sex = bad" is an overly simplistic takeaway that doesn't even begin to address every possible situation. Instead, when I look for the broader messages about romantic and sexual relationships in Scripture, I see a general theme that loving, God-centered, committed relationships = good, and selfish, lustful, flesh-driven relationships = bad. That seems like a much more logical and more comprehensive understanding of the kinds of relationships God wants for us, then anything based on the potentially ambiguous definition of biological sex.


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