Redeeming Gender, Softening Extremes by Christy Croft


Christy CroftLast month, I attended a lecture by Anglican theologian Adrian Thatcher on his recent book, Redeeming Gender. In this book, Thatcher draws upon the one sex and two sex theories described by Thomas Laqueur in his book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur posits that until the eighteenth century, it was believed that women and men were two expressions of the same basic sex – that women were men whose reproductive organs were similar but found in the “wrong” places. Ovaries were internal testes, the vagina an inverted penis, and the labia a parallel for the scrotum – all making women flawed expressions of man.

This sets up a continuum in which there is one sex rather than two, with men as more perfect expressions of man, and women as inferior expressions. Thatcher argues that if the language, liturgy, and doctrines of the church arose in the context of the one sex theory, then Christianity’s foundational beliefs and practices are already compatible with acceptance of a spectrum of gender identity within a one-sex model, opening up new interpretations that allow for full participation of women and LGBTQ+ people within the church. While the old one sex theory as described by Laqueur is a spectrum from more to less perfection, from more to less like God, the spectrum Thatcher proposes is clearly progressive – one in which all places along the spectrum share in the same equality.

And yet it is still a linear spectrum, with extremes envisioned as opposites, as distant from each other.

Untitled self portrait by Christy Croft

untitled self portrait by Christy Croft

As I listened to Thatcher speak of gender as a continuum in which the extremes remain distinct, my mind filled with the ways toxic masculinity and degraded images of femininity shape how we move through the world, personally and politically. I thought of my children, and how intentional we must be as parents and mentors to help the young people we love swim through cultural currents that discourage boys from compassion, girls from self-worth, and those who don’t conform from free expression and living their joy. Polarities pull into the extremes and linear spectrums lend themselves too easily to good-bad dualities and hierarchies based on division (even when the lines are drawn arbitrarily or are fuzzy), plus research on gender suggests a model far more complex than a linear spectrum can accommodate.

With the combined influences of biology, identity, expression, and sexual and romantic orientations shaping how we understand ourselves and move through intimacies, how we experience our own bodies and adore those of others, and how we deploy sexuality and delight in the erotic, can a linear spectrum adequately conceptualize sex or gender? Preservation of linear extremes discourages people from experiencing and embodying those aspects of themselves that are perceived as belonging to the other extreme. If even cis people carry within us both masculine and feminine traits, the perpetuation of linear poles puts us necessarily at odds with parts of ourselves, preventing integration and the full expression of the wholeness of our human nature.

untitled self portrait by Christy Croft

untitled self portrait by Christy Croft

I asked Thatcher about this polarity, and he indicated that a nonlinear model that allowed for more complexity was the direction in which his work was headed. My question was deliberately worded in a way that foregrounded the human experience of implemented theology of gender, and Thatcher’s response, compassionate and warm, revealed a shared awareness of inclusivity and equality. Still, I struggled to envision a better model. Does a circle work? Does our linear spectrum need a y-axis to cross the x, or even a z-axis? If its axes extend infinitely, we maintain the problem of polarity and increasing extremes, but in infinite directions rather than two. Does it curve back in, like spacetime? Can we envision it as a 3-dimensional space within which the cohesive I, constantly in fluid motion, can reach out and dance among the swirling possibilities, around and with and between the other Is?

These seem like impractical questions of theory – one more document in the file of ways I overthink my life and my reality. But these are also real questions of inclusivity, of how human acceptance mirrors divine love, and of how the experience of human love reflects grace. The very first suicide hotline call I ever took (over twenty years ago) was from an overwhelmed teenage boy afraid to tell his family or friends he was gay, seeing no way out of his closeted misery; years of answering rape crisis hotlines reminded me time and time again of the destructive impacts of gender extremes and constrained identity. The number of trans and gender nonconforming people who have considered or attempted suicide speaks to the need for full acceptance, from family as well as from community.

untitled self portrait by Christy Croft

untitled self portrait by Christy Croft

The theoretical conceptualizes the deeply, profoundly and personally real – embodied experiences that shape and uplift and tear down and grow and empower and bring grief to real, live humans. For every theoretical set of belief structures and every theological position, there are humans – real people, vulnerable people – who will be impacted by the adoption of those positions by their families, friends, places of worship, communities, and governments. We owe it to our traditions to maintain our integrity as scholars and knowledge-creators. We owe it to each other – to our LGBTQ+ friends, to women and other femme folks, to people of racial and ethnic minorities, and to those living with disabilities or in poverty – to carefully consider how our theories and our actions reduce harm, build acceptance, and reveal divine love.

During a rather reflective hoop-dance session after Thatcher’s lecture, I was aware that as I stretched and danced to allow the hoop to move about me I was able to reach into and be present in multiple spaces of the octants defined by the center of my living room, even as the stable I – my core—remained primarily within a localized range. If your conception of gender is non-essentialist or beyond the binary and you have a model or metaphor that helps you conceptualize gender better, feel free to share it. I’d love to grow in my understanding through meeting you in yours.

Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She is a graduate student whose current liberal studies program has focused on religion and social justice. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.

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Categories: Gender, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, Theology

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16 replies

  1. I have read this a few times, and I am not sure I understand what you are saying Thatcher’s view is. Can you restate it? Is he working with a masculine and feminine gender role binary but affirming that people can fall all along the continuum between the two? How does that relate to his one sex theory?

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    • Hi, Carol! I can certainly try to clarify (to the extent that my own understanding of his view is entirely accurate), but your questions are similar to the questions I had reading his work. Much of his argument is focused on the one sex theory and the role that had in shaping church history and doctrine, with men and women as better or worse expressions of the one sex, “man,” and how the shift to viewing humans in terms of two separate sexes further codified the subjugation of women, the exclusion of same-sex love, and the elision of trans and intersex people. He also seems to like understanding gender as a set of social relations instead of identity, so does not situate his work neatly within the current two-realms dialogue of sex (biological) and gender (cultural). This last point (the different understanding of sex and gender than what I’ve seen in my gender studies programs) made his work a little hard for me to read due to my brain wanting to overlay the sex-gender dichotomy onto his language in a way that didn’t fit.

      So, his main points are: interpreting scripture with a hermeneutics that acknowledges the one-sex theory as part of the context in which scripture was written; critically evaluating church prohibitions that have arisen since in terms of how they were influenced by a one-sex theory that viewed women as imperfect men, and that were later codified by women being cordoned off into their own sex which was seen as unlike that of Jesus or a masculine God (prohibitions such as those against women’s ordination, homosexual sex, same sex marriage, etc.); and critically evaluating the relatively recent construction of two separate sexes, different and apart from each other, which accentuates our difference rather than our similarity and unity.

      He emphasizes that our essence is not male or female but human, and then builds a trinitarian argument about difference (particularly when lifted from the binary constraints of separation) as a means of communion.

      All of this was interesting to me, but what caught my attention and sparked this post was that during his talk, he referred to an understanding of sex as a linear spectrum with clearly defined poles, and in this I think he might have been referring to both biology and identity. To me, this sounded like what you said — a binary with allowances for some stuff in between. But biologically, a linear spectrum made no sense to me because of the varied expressions of intersex bodies. Is someone who has a uterus and a penis more or less female than someone who has testes and a vagina? What about someone with one ovary and one testis? Have do we quantify where they fall along the spectrum (short of letting them quantify that for themselves)? So even if we’re just talking biology, ordering along a spectrum becomes a problem and linear is inadequate, because if intersex bodies can’t be placed into a spectrum in a way that makes sense, we’re back to man-woman with a space for “other” in the middle, which is a modified binary not a spectrum. And if we’re talking gender (using the two-realms sex-gender dichotomy that Thatcher doesn’t), then we’re moving back into culturally/psychologically essentialist models of submissive-weak-emotional-nurturing-hearthkeeping-passive vs. dominant-strong-rational-aggressive-leading-active that don’t even fit most of us who’d be considered cis, or at least cis-ish. My own personal makeup draws from both ends of that spectrum most of the time or weaves between them situationally. Plus, I have friends who comfortably identify as women but read more masculine than most of my close guy friends, and guy friends who outdo my own femininity (in terms of more traditional understandings of “femininity”) from time to time.

      Anyway, I’m not sure how much I clarified since I’m still processing his work and how I understand it in relation to my own background in gender studies, but that’s what I think I’ve grokked thus far.

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      • Thanks Christy, I also read the ch. available on Amazon. I found the argument hard to follow. I find it bizarre that the (reinterpreted) one sex theory would be touted positively. One humanity, yes, but of course closely related to higher primates, etc. Two statistically most common sexes xy, xx, and a number of variants, up to 2% of the population. http://oii-usa.org/2563/how-common-is-intersex-in-humans/

        I also find it bizarre to use the internal relations of the Trinity to explain relationships between people who are equal but different. Do we need that model to get there? But then I always found that notion of internal relationships within one God to be bizarre, anyway…

        According to research, the xx, xy, or other genetic makeup does not apply only to our genetalia but to every cell in our bodies. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQcgD5DpVlQ
        But translating any of this into personality characteristics deemed to be essential to one’s genetic makeup seems to me to be wrong.

        I would like to get rid of the words masculine and feminine altogether. Then we could decide as parents, communities, and cultures what personality characteristics we wish to encourage in human beings of any and every sex. I would start with encouraging care, empathy/compassion, and generosity and discouraging self-centeredness, aggression, and hoarding. For everyone! And if it turns out that one or more of the sexual variations is more prone to override empathy than the other(s)–as Franz de Waal argues based on primate research–then it is our task to create cultures where everyone learns to be and is rewarded for being empathetic.

        PS I am not in favor of getting rid of sex categories, male and female, and intersex (or other preferred terms). I just don’t think these should be correlated with essential personality characteristics.

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      • And to restate something I have said many times before, being 6’1″ does not make me “masculine,” nor does having a highly rational mind. Nor does having a highly intuitive mind make me “feminine.” I do not consider my rational mind my masculine side or my intuitive mind my feminine side. Both are capacities shared by all sexes and both should be cultivated in and by every one of us!!!!

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      • Carol, these comments are wonderful, and the feedback I’m getting from you and the other friends who’ve been sharing their thoughts with me on my social media accounts are helping me further develop how I understand all this.

        You mentioned that you found it bizarre that the reimagined one-sex theory would be touted positively, and that was something that came up in class discussions as well. In my margin notes in the text, I had written, “instead of looking at what was the advance in science at that historical time for inspiration, why aren’t we looking at what is the forefront of science of gender in our own time?” It does seem odd, with there being so much research into the biology of sex/gender, and so much theory about the experience and expression of gender, to look to a time that viewed sex as a spectrum from good to bad for inspiration. Look around, look forward. Look behind only to the extent that it provides context and history.

        I’m also exceedingly non-essentialist in my understanding of personality traits and gender and have a love-hate relationship with “masculine” and “feminine.” On the one hand, in some contexts I find it useful to be able to talk about the traits apart from the identity, and I’ve been known in my journaling to use “active” and “passive,” or “directive” and “receptive,” in describing experiences and ways of being — things we all have within us to some degree. On the other hand, as someone who spends a lot of time with people in that in-between area (nonbinary, trans, intersex, agender), I know that many of them find masc/fem distinctions useful in describing their experiences of interwoven or fluid gender, for example, someone identifying as “nonbinary femme.” But even in those instances, I’m not sure if they’re describing a trait as specifically masculine or feminine or just using culturally-normative language as a sort of shorthand. I find that frequently when I use “masculine” or “feminine,” I’m using shorthand rather than intending essentialism, or I’m referring specifically to cultural/historical norms rather than innate understanding.

        And thank you for the additional “restate” comment — I found myself nodding in agreement. I’m not all that tall, but the intuitive and rational parts of me are both so essential to my self-understanding, as well as the dominant and gentle, confident and nurturing… They work so well together when I allow them to be in harmony.

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  2. The hoop, I like it!

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    • Thanks, Elizabeth! I took those pictures the week before attending Thatcher’s talk, and halfway through writing this piece and trying to understand what a better visual might look like, it occurred to me that those pictures look a little bit like what I imagine spectrography of a 3-dimensional gender imprint of how we move through our lives might be. If one of the axes is identity, one is expression, and one is time over our lifespans, for example. I’m not sure what the axes would be honestly, but now I can’t look at those pictures without seeing some kind of gender spectrography and wondering what lifespan of gender identity and expression each image might represent.

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  3. Dear Christy
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-inspiring post. I love your self-portraits and your explorations of how we see – we have so many pictures and they influence our beliefs and behaviour so getting more helpful pictures is, for me at least, hugely helpful.
    Please keep exploring and sharing. I don’t have a model or metaphor to offer at the moment – and suspect that we will need many models, many metaphors in trying to elaborate the beauty, diversity and possibilities of human being in the world – but thank you for your thoughts
    Margaret

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    • Thanks, Margaret! I, too, believe we need many models and metaphors to capture the diversity and possibility of human existence and experience, with sex/gender as well as the other ways that diversity expresses. Even in considering models and metaphors that we later discard as inadequate or erroneous (or even come back to after reconsideration), we grow in understanding.

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  4. This is a thought-provoking post, to which I have no ready response. Except to say that for me the only way to go is to accept people’s own self-definition. This, of course, doesn’t help. But for me it’s the only means I have of identifying other folks, even when some people’s self-definition — Caitln Jenner’s for instance — makes me wonder who gets to define what “woman” is (for instance), because, like you, I don’t project or experience my femaleness/femininity like she does. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because ultimately we’re all human and we’re all a part of the interconnected web of all existence (the Goddess for me).

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    • I’m with you on that, Nancy. I just can’t imagine ever thinking I know someone’s experiences and self-understanding better than they do, so I go with what they tell me.

      Reading through your last sentence, I agree. We’re all human and part of that web of existence, and maybe that’s what Thatcher is getting at — our human essence ultimately eclipses those aspects of ourselves that otherwise divide us and set us apart. I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile that with gender as a category of both oppression and reparation. By that I mean that while I believe we are fundamentally the same, with distinctions that are too complex to be shoved into binaries anyway, I also believe that as long as women are still struggling for equal treatment and to participate fully in their communities, the distinctions are useful in creating spaces for correction, pushback, justice, and healing. I’m not convinced we’re ready yet to let binary distinctions go entirely in the spirit of acknowledging our oneness, even as my intellectual conceptualization of how it all works doesn’t fit into a binary.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  5. i look to the arts for guidance always. Every woman, every person is unique, and to me that’s the way of nature also, so highly creative — no two things can come to be in the same place at the same time.
    That ‘s how nature does things, how she evolves, with endless creatively.

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    • Thank you for sharing that, Sarah. We are all unique, with no two ways of expressing or self-understanding being identical.

      The arts are such a teacher and healer for me. There’s something about immersing myself into the creative process, whether writing, drumming, dancing, drop-spinning yarn, weaving, singing, or whatever, that sparks insights and breakthroughs, as well as gentle focus and sometimes dissolution. It definitely puts me in parallel, or sometimes in union, with the greater process of creativity.

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  6. I found this part interesting: “If even cis people carry within us both masculine and feminine traits, the perpetuation of linear poles puts us necessarily at odds with parts of ourselves, preventing integration and the full expression of the wholeness of our human nature.” Not just cis, but everyone is a mosaic of gender as I like to think of it. To polarize gender does put one at odds within themselves, and makes issues out of free expression.

    Now processing the whole piece I think of how the Trinity simulates marriage, which is traditionally gendered, and how that could translate to within an individual. I went and found that essay we read by Dumitru Staniloae, The Holy Trinity: Structure of Supreme Love, and as to how linear gender estranges one from themselves this bit caught my eye: “The more he is treated as object the more he feels a stranger to these others; and the more he treats others as objects, the more he feels them becoming estranged from himself, closing themselves to him and becoming enclosed within themselves. My transformation of others into objects and their transformation of me into an object is a weakening of consubtantiality, a decline into an inferior kind of consubstantiality, the decline of real love through communion into a facsimile only more or less faithful to the original.” (84)

    As for a new model of gender it might be as evasive to define as the Trinity to time-and-space based language. Maybe one could accurately define God, and gender, if they spoke in frequencies of light, but that’s not here nor there. I’m surely stumped for it, though. On the one hand to emphasize the essences or Platonic forms of gender may demean real experience, and on the other one humans possess distinct qualities about us which language ought to define; but it’s all caught up in social construction and that’s what makes it tricky. If anything might make a difference in conceiving gender as flowey like your analogy of the stable I, I think it would be worthwhile to explore identity as a malleable aspect of a person. Maybe read Foucault? I’ve not read much of him but I know he deals with that sort of thing.

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    • That Staniloae quote is interesting in this context. (Also, Staniloae… sigh. Something about the way he writes so lyrically in places makes him one of my favorite reads for that class.)

      What you say about language resonates with my experience. There’s a part of me that wants to dismiss all efforts at defining sex/gender, and just let people live and be and move. The problem with that, of course, is that people are already defining sex/gender for us, and to throw our hands up, to opt out and remove our voices from those dialogues, is to throw ourselves onto whatever current is already raging by and hope for the best. So we fumble with words in trying to describe both our understandings and experiences of the divine and our complex, constructed, and certainly malleable identities, but it’s not perfect. Symbolic representation rarely is, right? But it’s also how we communicate our inner realities to others, so we keep trying.

      Speaking of malleability, the concept of having lifespan as a dimension in the visual representation has been with me all day. I’m still sitting with it to see what it has to show me, but I do believe our self-understanding is shaped and fluid to some degree, even if only within a range.

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  7. I suppose I view it less as a continuum or a spectrum and more as a starry sky — something much more expansive than any linear polarity. Perhaps we each are our own point of light in the night sky, shining brightly and burning true and real up there, inhabiting our own gender identity, gender expression, sexual and romantic attractions, and sense of self. There is pressure to categorize and fir into this box or that, but there are so many variations and possibilities, I don’t think a linear model can capture them all. And yet, in each individual, there is some way of being that, in this precise moment…feels absolutely right. And burns with clarity and truth. That is not necessarily on some line or spectrum or 3-D sphere related to anyone else’s way of being — it’s just its own brilliant point of light. And if we can just learn to appreciate that…a universe that is full of these brilliant beacons of truth and love and hope…then maybe that’s something we can all gaze at in awe and wonder.

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