I think I’ve heard the phrase “in the beginning God made them male and female” a hundred times in response to the sex/gender discussions of our time. The phrase works like a trump card to win a theological discussion on anything from LGBTQ issues to how Target should organize their toys. However, each time I hear someone say “God made male and female” as if that’s all he made, the question that comes to my mind each time is: “What about those whose bodies are intersex?”
You might not be familiar with it, but there are more than two sexes– and no, not everyone is born clearly male or clearly female.
This is what makes me cringe with some of the ways the above statement is used (or perhaps misused) in our culture wars– because if God made everything/everyone (and I believe he did), he made more than just male and female.
I’ve been wanting to blog about this topic, but I’m not an expert on it. However, one of my good theologian friends– Dr. Megan DeFranza– actually is an expert on this issue. In fact, she just had a book come out on this topic (Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God), so I thought she’d be a great person to ask a few questions about intersex. Megan holds a PhD from Marquette University, is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with degrees in theology and biblical languages, and has taught theology at both Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Gordon College (she also has a blog, you can find here). I’m appreciative to have her here on the blog for the following interview:
BLC: I frequently hear people quote Jesus as saying “from the beginning God made male and female” in gender discussions, but are the distinctions of male and female really the only two sexes God makes?
Dr. DeFranza: The creation accounts in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and the narrative of the fall into sin in chapter 3 offer the foundational theological narrative for Jews and Christians. It is the beginning of the Great Book, the great story of God’s redemption, so it rightly deserves our attention. The challenge is how to interpret these narratives. You know the questions: Literal 6 days or ages? Special creation or evolutionary creation?
To these we need to add the following question: Are the creation accounts comprehensive inventories of all of God’s good creations or do these narratives describe the beginning in broad themes?
If we look closely, I think we find broad themes—male and female, creatures of the land, creatures of the sky, creatures of the sea; night and day, but not dusk; sun, moon, and stars, but no comets. There are many creations which are simply not named in the creation accounts. Amphibians—hybrid animals that are “creatures of the sea” and “creatures of the land”—are noticeably absent and yet I have never heard a scientist who is a Christian explain their existence as one of the “results of the fall into sin.”
But I have heard this explanation more than I care to count to make sense of the presence of human beings who have mixed sex characteristics. Some people insist that God created humans to be male or female and anyone whose body falls somewhere in between the categories of “Adam” or “Eve” must be proof of the “fall.”
The majority of people do seem to be clearly male or female—one more reason I think the author of Genesis is speak in general categories—but for every 2,500-4,500 live births a child is born whose body is intersex.
Intersex refers to a variety of physical differences where people have male and female characteristics—XXY chromosomes or internal reproductive organs of one sex with external sex characteristics of the other, for example. They sometimes result in ambiguous genitals so that doctors are not sure whether to assign the sex of male or female on the birth certificate but other times differences show up later in life—in early childhood or at puberty. Physicians often use the term Disorders of Sex Development (DSDs) but many within the intersex community prefer “Differences” of Sex Development—a more neutral term. [When I use DSD, I mean “Differences” of Sex Development.]
Genesis 1-3 is a theological account of beginnings that was never intended to give us the whole story. Thankfully, we find help in other parts of the Bible to put together with this good beginning for a more complete picture of what it means to be human in right relationship with God.
BLC: I’ve brought up the issue of intersex before and folks have told me, “Even in these rare cases, it is still possible to determine if the person is male or female.” In your professional opinion, is this true? What have the results looked like for parents/doctors who attempted to determine the actual gender of a child when they were young?
Dr. Defranza: This depends on what you mean by “determine” and who gets to determine.
It is true that many intersex persons identify as male or female (of course, in our culture there haven’t been other real options). Many have a sense of gender identity that is male or female even if their body doesn’t neatly align with it. Some choose to bring their bodies into line with their gender identity through medical intervention. Others simply dress and identify as one gender or the other. And yet there are others who, when they discover the term intersex, are relieved to find a category that makes sense not only of their body which is “in between” but of their gender identity that also feels “in between.”
The problem is when doctors and parents try to decide for the child—based on their best guess given the variety of physical differences the child has (hormone levels, genital size and shape, etc.)—because these are guesses and too often people guess wrong.
When doctors perform plastic surgery on an infant or child to make their genitals appear less ambiguous they are making a guess and performing a medically unnecessary surgery—very few intersex conditions are medical emergencies. Unfortunately, if the child does not develop a gender identity to match the guess of their doctors, there is much less tissue to work with should the individual want to alter their body to bring it into line with their sense of gender and scar tissue in sensitive places causes many more problems for individuals.
Pediatricians who specialize in children with DSDs now agree with intersex advocates who recommend delaying surgeries (preferably until after puberty) when the child is old enough to have a sense of their own gender and can give informed consent to medical treatment should they desire it.
BLC: As a theologian your area of research has specifically been in the realm of theology relating to intersex. If you could condense your years of work in this area, how would you express a theology of intersex? Does the Bible even have anything to say about this?
Dr. Defranza: Let me answer your second question first.
I was surprised and delighted to find that the Bible does speak about intersex and ancient Jews and Christians were very familiar with Differences of Sex Development.
Jesus mentions intersex persons in Matthew 19:12 when he speaks of “naturally born eunuchs” which the Jews called saris chamah or “eunuch of the sun”—those who were known to be eunuchs from the day the sun shone upon them. Jews made provisions for naturally born eunuchs in their communities—pulling from laws for men and laws for women to make sure all of their bases were covered. Contemporary Jewish scholars do the same today.
Isaiah prophesies blessings for eunuchs who are faithful to YHWH in Is. 56:1-8, “an everlasting name” … “better than sons or daughters”—in other words blessings better than being “healed” or restored to manhood. This passage begins to be fulfilled in Acts 8 when the first foreigner is baptized—an Ethiopian and a eunuch.
Augustine speaks of hermaphrodites and androgynes rather casually saying,
“they are certainly very rare, and yet it is difficult to find periods when there are no examples of human beings possessing the characteristics of both sexes, in such a way that it is a matter of doubt how they should be classified. However, the prevalent usage has called them masculine, assigning them to the better sex” (City of God, 16.8).
Don’t you just love Augustine?!?
There is not space here to detail a “theology of intersex” but what I see from Jesus is that he doesn’t speak of intersex as a result of the fall into sin. I see Jews and Christians making space for intersex members of their communities. I hear Isaiah promising eunuchs a place in God’s temple—which I read as a promise of their place in the new Heaven and New Earth. If I read from Genesis to Revelation, I see God folding in more and more outsiders so that God’s house can finally be a “house of prayer for all people.” (It’s that same passage from Isaiah 56:1-7.)
BLC: The issue of gender is somewhat a hot-topic in Christian discussions today. What do you think we can learn from your work in the area of intersex that would be beneficial to the larger discussion on theology and gender?
Dr. Defranza: There is so much to learn! First, Christians need to not fear scientific studies of gender. Sure, we should read everything carefully for bias (that includes writings from fellow Christians) but there is good, careful research being done to help us separate fact from fiction, science from stereotype, cultural preferences from universal patterns.
One of the most helpful books I read along the way was Brain Gender—an amazingly readable book written by the Director of the Neuroendocrinology Research Lab in London. Dr. Hines summarizes research on gender differences saying,
“few, if any, individuals correspond to the modal [statistically most common] male pattern or the modal female pattern. Variation within each sex is great, with males and females near the top and bottom of the distributions for every characteristic. … In fact, although most of us appear to be either clearly male or clearly female, we are each complex mosaics of male and female characteristics” (M. Hines, Brain Gender, 18-19).
Rather than see this as a problem to be solved—trying to fit all this diversity back into some original (and inaccessible) pattern of Adam or Eve—could this have been God’s plan all along: to begin the story with two who are called to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” with different kinds of people who are all called to love one another and worship God in their similarities and differences?
I don’t see Jesus calling us to become manly or womanly. Jesus calls all of us to be made new, to put on Christ, to grow in love, holiness, and the fruit of the Spirit. These virtues are for all people—male, female, and intersex alike. They challenge masculine stereotypes. They challenge feminine stereotypes. They call all of us to die to our own preferences so that God’s life can grow within us. That is good news.
If you’re among those who casually throws out the phrase “God made them male and female” as if that’s all God made, and as if all of our gender discussions can fit neatly inside certain boxes, I’d invite you to consider that gender is an issue with more complexity than we often realize or admit.