In Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi's new book Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, Francis condemns "gender theory," likening it to nuclear war and genetic manipulation. Joshua McElwee reports:

[Francis] says that every historical period has "Herods" that "destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation....Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,....Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.

And in a January 19 press conference, he used "gender theory" as an example of ideological colonization, a tactic, he said, used by the Nazis.

Surely something comparable to BOTH nuclear war AND the Nazis deserves some attention. What is this "gender theory," anyway?

Francis seems to be echoing the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI in his 2012 Christmas address to the Curia:

People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.

Benedict makes three main complaints:

1. He rejects the disconnection of gender from sex.

2. He complains that it is said to be socially constructed or individually chosen

3. He asserts that duality of male and female is essential to human nature.

According to McElwee, Pope Francis' target is "modern theories that consider people's gender identities to exist along a spectrum," which introduces another concept, that of gender identity.

Here, I'll start with a few definitions, basically to clarify the vocabulary of the debate, with a few comments along the way:

1.  Sex is a biological category like male and female. Of course, there are a substantial number of intersex people. The number varies with the definition of "intersex" used, (here's one explanation,) but range from 0.018% to a high of 1.7%. Using the narrower definition, (where external genitalia are inconsistent with genetic sex or the external genitalia are not identifiable as male or female,) well over a million people defy the duality of male and female. It used to be common practice to assign a sex to babies at birth based on the easier surgical "fix"--usually to a female appearance, but this led to profound unhappiness in many people when the sex to which they were conformed did not reflect their own gender identity. Because "Chromosomal, neural, hormonal, psychological, and behavioral factors can all influence gender identity, [m]any experts now urge delaying definitive surgery for as long as healthy, and ideally involving the child in the gender decision."

2. Gender Identity is one's inner sense of oneself as male, female or other. If you want to know someone's gender identity, you need to ask. Gender identity emerges early in life, and usually lines up with one's biological sex. When it doesn't, the situation is called Gender Identity Disorder or Gender Dysphoria. According to a 2012 article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, a large number of genetic and non-genetic (including epigenetic and other biological factors as well as psychological and environmental influences,) have been implicated in GID. Gender identity is reflected in brain activity along a spectrum; the brain activity of people whose gender identity is different from their genital/chromosomal sex is closer to that of their gender identity than their sex, showing that gender identity, like sex, is a biological trait. Several theories exist as to how gender, gender identity, and the gender roles one adopts develop: this paper describes several.

3. Gender expression is the way one expresses one's gender identity outwardly, in external and socially constructed signals like clothing, haircuts, voice, mannerisms, and such. The social construction of gender expression was played out in the 2000 movie Billy Elliot, about a young boy who wanted to become a ballet dancer, thus defying gender expression norms in his community. Billy didn't understand himself to be a girl (gender identity,) but "real"  boys don't dance, at least not in the north-east British coal mining community where Billy lived. (People who defy gender expression norms are sometimes assumed to be gay, which confuses gender identity with sexual orientation, a different question entirely.) 

4. Gender "refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women," which includes matters of sex, gender identity and gender expression. While "male" and "female" are terms related to sex, "masculine" and "feminine" refer to gender. Most children are socialized into the gender that matches their biological sex, though of course the particulars of that socialization vary with culture, personality and time. For example, suffragettes were accused of being unfeminine by virtue of wanting to vote, so some took pains to enact a more typically feminine gender expression. Women athletes (except those in "feminine" sports like gymnastics, figure skating, and tennis,) are only now overcoming a socially constructed bias that challenges their femininity, (and often their sexual orientation.) It's not really a stretch to assert that whenever women strive to expand the boundaries of what counts as "feminine," they are accused of failing to respect their very nature. Here's one example from 1943, as women continued to request admission to Harvard Medical School:

"While I am willing to agree that there are some very able women in medicine, the pro-feminists are apt to overlook the fundamental biological law that the primary function of woman is to bear and raise children, and the first social duty of woman is to develop and perpetuate the home." John T. Williams, MD

The fact that women now routinely practice medicine is one example of a change in the social construction of gender. To speak of gender as individually "chosen," it seems to me, merely reflects the historical fact that brave individuals stand up to challenge social norms before it is socially acceptable. 

Transgender is "a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth." A narrower definition indicates a person whose gender identity is different from their gender assigned at birth. The opposite of transgender is cis-gender. Transgender people are at risk of abuse and worse. So far in 2015, at least six transgender women have been murdered in the US., and trans people are murdered at a rate 50% higher than lesbians and gays, who themselves are victims of hate crimes disproportionately. Too often families do not recognize the depth of gender identity in one's sense of self, and try to force children into a gender identity that does not fit. This kind of abuse can also be deadly

transgender respondents who experienced rejection by family and friends, discrimination, victimization, or violence have a higher risk of attempting suicide. 78 percent of survey respondents who suffered physical or sexual violence at school reported suicide attempts, as did 65 percent of respondents who experienced violence at work.

The number of trans people is difficult to ascertain, but one estimate suggests that about 700,000 Americans are transgender. Insisting on a strict genitially-based sex (ignoring gender identity and the range of gender expression) in human beings reduces transgender people to invisibility and contributes to their abuse. Theological reflection on transgender people's experience is in its infancy; until recently, trans people have been subsumed into the LGBTQ... litany, though the actual issues that face trans people are clearly different than those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Queer is an umbrella term for members of sexual minorities, including both people who are not heterosexual and people who are not cisgender. It is now generally taken as a term of pride rather than opprobrium.

Definitions in hand, let's return to Benedict and Francis' fears:

1. How shall we think about the relationship of sex and gender? Some insist that biological sex determines gender nearly entirely. John Paul II's Theology of the Body inclines in this direction, and asserts a stark duality of male and female, masculine and feminine--women (i.e., people idenitfied as genitally and/or chromosomally female,) have character traits (nurturance and passivity/receptivity, e.g.,) that are different from those proper to men, and therefore women should inhabit social roles (a matter of gender expression) that are distinctively feminine, (like not wanting to be priests--a leadership role apparently unsuited to the nurturant.) That the definition of what counts as appropriate to women varies between and within cultures and across time is not accounted for in this view. Oddly, John Paul cites fierce transvestite warrior Joan of Arc (who was killed as a relapsed heretic for wearing men's clothing, and can certainly, if anachronoistically, be thought of as queer,) as a model of the feminine genius, thus calling into question the descriptive (and certainly the normative) value of many, if not most, of the "feminine" traits he inferred. 

The other pole cites gender as exclusively socialy constructed, which seems to me to completely separate gender from sex, which seems to disregard all the biological, neurological, psychological, etc. factors that can play into one's gender identity.

Another position would acknowledge physiology without making anatomy destiny.  This "low-bar" gender essentialism posits a low predictive value for sex vis a vis gender, without discounting it entirely. (Dichotomous traits remain dichotomous--males can be sperm donors, females cannot. Females can be egg donors, males cannot.) Most sex-associated traits don't recognize a stark dichotomy, but two overlapping bell curves. For example, because testosterone fosters muscle growth, men as a group are stronger than women as a group, but at the same time, plenty of women are stronger than plenty of men.

2. Is gender socially constructed? Absent social construction of gender, terms like tomboy, girlie-girl, butch, or femme (to use only a few of the terms directed at women and girls,) lose all meaning unless one wants to pathologize all but a single set of norms for female identity and expression in the world and across time. In some nations, it is regarded as unfeminine for women to drive, for example.  is that socially constructed, or are all women who drive out of touch with their nature? And just as important--who gets to decide? Shouldn't women have a say in what makes a woman? 

3. Isn't human nature fundamentally a duality of male and female? This can only be upheld by ignoring the existence of millions of human beings whose sex and/or gender identity do not fit the "rule" of male AND masculine (according to which illusory single set of standards for masculinity?) or female AND feminine, (according to other illusory standards of such.) The spectrum of gender can be seen every time a woman relishes some more "masculine" endeavor--like, say leading a French army against the British, like Joan of Arc. It can also be seen when men embrace more "feminine" aspects of their character, yet remain "masculine" in their gender identity. Anyone paying attention to the numerous ways people describe and express their masculinty and feminity would have to recognize that to assert a strict duality would be a facile caricature of humankind. I can only hope that Francis' meeting with a trans man late last month will lead him to change his mind and heart. 

Recognizing the degree to which social conventions define and delimit gender expression, I'd suggest that we leave a lot of room for people to speak to what it means to them to be men or women, or other, and not to force a lovely array of human be-ing into a false duality which fails to adequately reflect biology, much less the richer experience of human life in its totality. That has to do with gender roles, but also gender identity. And aren't Christians especially called to uphold the human dignity of all children of God, male and female, masculine and feminine, transgender and cisgender alike? That attitude doesn't "destroy" nature, as Pope Francis fears, but rather recognizes the beautiful panoply of humankind that God has created.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.