Wrestling with Gender Identity in the Christian Community

The mutability of gender and identity causes consternation for many Americans. Christians in the United States have also wrestled with understanding correct gender roles. For historians, perceptions of gender as a key formation of identity is not a new issue.

Often, the act of encountering a new people group revealed the socially constructed ideas of gender. Early European accounts of natives in what is now the United States demonstrated many of the ideals of gender held by upper class white Europeans. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, an early Spanish explorer to the Americas, spent most of his time attempting to survive his wrecked expedition and wandered around the modern day southwestern United States. His account, written to impress the King of Spain, provided contradicting gendered perspectives of the natives. In his Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition, De Vaca wrote, “during the time I was among them I saw something very repulsive, namely, a man married to another. These are impotent and womanish beings who dress like and do the work of women. They carry heavy loads but do not use a bow. Among these Indians we saw many of them. They are more robust than other men, taller, and can bear heavy loads.” In de Vaca’s eyes, male and female gender roles were very concrete and distinct. Men who performed what was deemed woman’s work could not be “real” men and must therefore have been “impotent.” His observations were somewhat contradictory, which points to de Vaca’s inability to clearly articulate what he observed, perhaps because he misunderstood what he saw or did not have the vocabulary to accurately describe what he witnessed.

In the 21st century, most Americans seem to submit to a binary view of gender.

But de Vaca is not the only example of a person from one culture who misunderstood the gender roles and gendered cues of another culture. French explorer Samuel de Champlain, when describing the Huron women and men in the Great Lakes region in his The Voyages and Explorations of Samuel de Champlain 1604-1616, believed some of the women to be “very powerful and of extraordinary height.” William Wood, in his New England’s Prospect, called the native men “lazy husbands” because Wood believed the native women did all “drudgery” work of farming and household chores. These European accounts illustrate clear ideals of gender where men performed roles of farming and hunting, at least in the lower classes, and women performed domestic and childrearing chores. Seeing women who hunted or farmed in some native societies forced Europeans to address these gender roles. Many concluded that because women could not possible perform those tasks, the woman must have been mannish, enslaved into this sort of forced labor or some sort of superwoman.

More recent work on gender has focused on sexuality, not just gendered roles. The work of Alfred Kinsey rocked American culture in the 1950s with his published research on the sexual habits of men and the sexual habits of women. Despite some credibility concerns over his research methods, many of which were legitimate and some that originated from a dislike of his findings, Kinsey’s work demonstrated the variability of human sexual behavior and identity. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey wrote, “it is a characteristic of the human mind that it tries to dichotomize in its classification of phenomena. Things either are so, or they are not so. Sexual behavior is either normal or abnormal, socially acceptable or unacceptable, heterosexual or homosexual; and many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from to the other extreme.” For Kinsey, sexual behaviors of men and women in the United States varied widely and did not fit neatly into one or two categories.

SOCIETY’S ROLE IN GENDER

The increasing visibility of the transgender community has once again touched off discussions of gender and identity. Not surprisingly, many of these discussions revolve around the placement of people into well-ordered categories so that the larger American society and culture knows how to treat people as part of larger gendered categories: male, female, gay or straight. In the 21st century, most Americans seem to submit to a binary view of gender. But when pushed, people often realize gender is not a simple biological or social/cultural identity. While some may accept Judith Butler’s idea of gender as a performance, most understand that both biology and cultural/social cues pay significant roles in understanding gender and identity.

The articles in this issue of Perspectives seek to engage with scholarship on gender and identity. When discussing ideas of gender and identity, people often focus on biological function as the most significant characteristic. But is this a definitive way to categorize gender? Sara Sybesma Tolsma, Laurie Furlong and Elizabeth Heeg probe the variety of reproduction evident in the natural world. Notably, their findings reveal the natural world is full of variations, modifications and alterations when it comes to reproduction. Gregory Jones explores the humanity of cage-fighting in his piece “Man versus Man, Woman versus  Woman: Mixed Martial Arts and Gender Identity.” While more women are entering the sport of MMA, it has historically been dominated by men as a demonstration of aggression, athleticism and extreme masculinity. Jones examines the connections between masculinity, sport and humanity and demonstrates the complexities of athletes and audiences in MMA.

Timothy Larsen tackles the discussion of gender roles in the church in his piece “Evangelicalism’s Strong History of Women in Ministry.” Larsen reveals the long history of women serving in biblical, gospel-focused churches and evangelical organizations. He also makes a clear articulation of why this long history is often overlooked and ignored. Kristin Kobes Du Mez provides an example of gendered analysis of popular culture in her piece “What if This Had Been Me? A Gendered Analysis of the Funniest Video Ever.” A seemingly routine interview by an academic at his desk went viral because of an impromptu entrance by his children and spouse. But why is the video so funny? And what does it tell us about the ways that 21st-century American culture draws and blurs the lines of gender? Du Mez raises some thoughtful questions about the ways that working women, academic women and parents of irresistibly camera-friendly children still retain the marks of distinctive gendered categories, despite the decades of change in perceptions of marriage, work and gender roles.

THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY: AN IDEAL FORUM

From my own perspective as a Christian historian and scholar as well as an educator, one of the best places for an honest discourse about Christian ideas of gender and American culture’s ideas of gender is in Christian circles. Too often Christians reject engagement with the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable issues within our own religious traditions and within the larger culture. If our children, students and American youths cannot dialogue about identity and gender with their parents, educators and mentors, who will they dialogue with instead? If we are not content with the values of American culture, why should we cede the weightiness of these discourses on gender and identity to secular institutions or cultural institutions that dismiss the complexities of faith as uninformed, outdated and unintelligent? This Perspectives issue on gender and identity endeavors to pursue this discussion. It is by no means a definitive guide to a discussion on gender and identity, but a small, selective survey of what Christian scholars can contribute to a larger cultural exchange on a timely and nuanced topic.

Rebecca Koerselman is guest editor of this issue of Perspectives. She teaches history at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.

Photo: RAZ Zarate, Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.