One of the main positives to emerge from the Scottish parliamentary election campaign so far has been a broad consensus from the main parties on issues of LGBT+ equality.
This was highlighted last week at an LGBTI hustings in Edinburgh, hosted by Stonewall Scotland, the Equality Network and the Scottish Transgender Alliance. In some respects this was inevitable and unsurprising, but what was notable was the agreement on gender identity legislation. It’s only relatively recently that political parties have begun to seriously address questions surrounding gender identity, but already it feels like significant progress is being made.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon naturally made the headlines as she intimated she hoped to ensure Scotland’s gender recognition laws will not only be reviewed but brought into line with “international best practice”. Essentially, she was proposing that Scots should be able to change their gender on their birth certificate by self-declaration and for legal recognition of “non-binary gender” which would also be reflected in legal documents. “It was time”, she said, “for greater recognition and protection [of non-binary people]”, adding that reviewing gender identity laws should be “one of the priorities of the next parliament”.
Ms Sturgeon also stressed the importance of improving education to ensure children were adequately education on LGBTI issues “throughout early years, primary and secondary education”.
The First Minister wasn’t alone in highlighting the need for recognition of non-binary gender. Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, whose party passed a motion calling for “legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation to be extended to include gender identity and intersex status where appropriate” at its conference last year, described the current system as outdated and “archaic”. Kezia Dugdale and Patrick Harvie said much the same thing. Ruth Davidson affirmed that she had “no philosophical objection” to recognising non-binary gender in law. All seemed agreed that if introducing gender-neutral legal documents such as birth certificates and passports worked in India, Denmark, Malta, New Zealand and Australia, there is no reason why Scotland should be any different.
So far, so good.
However, there are those who inevitably take a different view, and inevitably they tend to be people of faith. One voice of dissent is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, Rev David Robertson. He warned that the SNP, and presumably the other parties represented at the LGBTI hustings, “are now seeking to destroy the traditional idea of gender” and predicted that the result would be “confusion and brokenness amongst our children.”
He also suggested that those making the case for legal recognition of a third gender were “working on the unproven and somewhat bizarre notion that children get to choose their own gender and sexuality.”
In an article for Christian Today – “Gender politics and the Gospel: a warning from Scotland” – Mr Robertson went further. Not only does he dislike non-binary understandings of gender, he also views sexual orientation in binary terms and indulged in a bit of bi-erasure, claiming that “four of the six party leaders are gay” and suggesting that Kezia Dugale had recently “come out as gay”, when in fact she simply stated she had a female partner (we don’t know what her orientation is and, frankly, we can’t jump to conclusions. Patrick Harvie is bisexual). But I digress. His principal target was what he termed “the application of Disney theology” through “state-sponsored indoctrination”: “a world of confusion, distortion and insanity [in which] children have the choice to decide if they are a boy or a girl”.
This is typical of a particular school of thought in some faith circles. Those who believe literally that “He created them male and female” (Gen 5:2) tend to view any deviation from the binary as the product of imagination, irrespective of scientific perspectives on this issue and the undoubted biological reality of intersex people (whereby people are born with sexual anatomy that defies definition as uniquely male or female).
I can relate to Biblical literalism, even if I reject it. I understand the sincerity of those who accept it. However, to wilfully distort others’ positions because they don’t fit your worldview at best demonstrates an unwillingness to understand, or to actually engage with the substantive issue. Robertson confused sex and gender, and sees the argument purely about “changing” gender, when in fact non-binary and trans people are not changing their gender at all, simply asking for it to be recognised. His arguments that gender is inherited and biologically determined is one I’d generally side with, but his belief that one’s gender is necessarily determined by one’s genitalia is one I don’t accept. The denial of non-binary gender is also something that I see no scientific or even a religious basis for. The objections to “pick ‘n’ mix sexuality” make no attempt to identify with or even understand the experiences of people who feel their gender does not fit into the binary of male and female, let alone recent biological research.
Interestingly, Robertson states that we “find our identity in Christ”. Indeed, and in Him there is “no longer Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Clearly, our identity in Christ is not based upon such things as gender, employment or nationality – so why use this as a basis for objecting to looking beyond “traditional” appreciations of gender identities?
A few years ago, as a teenager attempting to make sense of their own sexuality and gender identity, I encountered a trans man who happened to be a Christian. We’ll call him John. Coming from the Hebrides, I didn’t meet trans people every day and it was something I didn’t understand. So I went to speak to my minister about my inability to get my head around it, and asked what God thought of “sex changes”. The answer I got will stay with me forever: “I don’t know what it’s like for John. But I do know that John is a man, and that God created him that way”. The response showed incredible understanding and acceptance.
There has to be a place for transgender, intersex and non-binary people in our churches – but how can they ever feel welcome if the leaders of those churches don’t even see a place for them in society? This is sadly an all-too common experience for many Christians who don’t identify with the gender binary. At best they feel misunderstood, at worst, outcasts. I have heard terrible stories of rejection from people for whom the church should have been a refuge and a source of love, but are instead dismissed by those who see them as fantastists who “pick n’ mix” their gender, or who adopt a “Disney theology” that sees them denying what God made them. Nothing could be further from the truth – such people actually deserve real respect for being willing to accept who they are and what God has made them.
Nobody “chooses” their gender identity in a way they choose a car or a brand of coffee. The truth is that many know they are “different” from a young age, and struggle to conform to societal expectations underpinned by inflexible understandings of gender – often with tragic consequences.
These experiences hurt – and they should hurt all of us because whenever one section of humanity is rejected or dehumanised it diminishes us all.
The gender binary crusaders may believe that deviation from “traditional” gender identities threatens the gospel – but what kind of gospel is threatened by people being honest about who they are? What kind of gospel reinforces socially constructed gender stereotypes? What gospel is it that ridicules and dehumanises? What kind of gospel fails to defend minorities? A gospel that not only trivialises the experiences of those who are different but actively exludes them is not a gospel worthy of the name. Any gospel that can find itself threatened by the biological reality of diversities in gender is clearly fragile and insecure.
Many find themselves defending the gender binary as if it somehow equates with defending God Himself. However, I do not see Jesus Christ at the altar of gender binaries, idolising rigid conformity to a scientifically illiterate orthodoxy. The same Jesus who shared his life with social outcasts and minorities of all kinds would be unlikely not to identify with already marginalised groups.
It’s not only Jesus who led by example. Intersex people may not have been explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but there is the curious case of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8: 26-40). In accordance with “tradition”, the Eunuch was forbidden to enter into God’s presence (Deuteronomy 23:1), but Philip saw fit to overlook a tradition that excluded, and baptised the eunuch anyway. He realised that the gospel was not about keeping people out, but welcoming them in – those who appeal to tradition would do well to follow his example.
As Christians we continually seek to make sense of the gospel, especially in relation to its application in our lives. There is inevitably much that can be disagreed on, but of one thing I am sure – Jesus Christ did not come into the world to preserve binary understanding of gender, or the culture underpinning it. Associating cultural conformity with Christian values not only is inaccurate, but serves to promote societal norms over the experiences of real people. It also denies the message of a gospel of love and acceptance that I, and other progressive Christians, to be at the centre of Christ’s message. As Roger Wolsey, author of Kissing Fish: Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity, observes: “We deny the Gospel whenever we judge others. We pound nails into Jesus’ body whenever we oppress our brothers and sisters who are different than us. We forsake the very faith that we think we’re following when we use ‘love’ to reject love.”