Christian Faith and Gender Identity
By Chris Paige
Day 1 of 7: Who Are You?
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
-Exodus 3:14 (NRSV)
My first job out of college was with an organization that had a casual work environment. I typically wore jeans and a t-shirt to the office. Our office building was in a residential neighborhood and near an apartment that was rented to two adult brothers. One day on the way into my office, one of the brothers asked me, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
He was asking about my gender identity, and he was wonderfully transparent about why he needed to know. He wanted to speak respectfully to me. He was very intentional and self-conscious about social graces—much more than many people are. He knew that there was an appropriate way that you should talk to a lady that is different than how you talk with a man.
I had short hair, did not wear make-up, and used a gender-neutral name. My chest was neither especially large nor especially flat. There were no tell-tale cues to help him make assumptions. He was not asking me about my sexual identity. He was not asking me who I was attracted to (romantically or sexually). Gender identity has to do with who you are on the inside. It has to do with who you are deep down. Like most of us, this gentleman had been taught that there are two (and only two) genders, so he was looking for a simple answer—“boy” or “girl.” The conventions around “boys and girls,” “men and women,” and “male and female” over-simplify this question in a hundred different ways, but essentially he was asking ‘Who are you?’ and ‘How do you fit into my world?’
Not all cultures over-simplify like this. Classical Judaism had six genders. The words for “eunuch” appear 50 times in the Christian Bible. In indigenous cultures around the world, there are many gender identities other than “male” and “female,” such as fa’afafine, waria, muxe, and hijra. In contemporary Western culture, words like “transgender,” “genderqueer,” “gender non-conforming,” and “non-binary” have started to give us more language to talk about diverse gender experiences. Words like these are important because they help us to talk about the diversity of God’s good and gender-full creation.
This tension around language may be similar to Moses’s encounter with God in Exodus 3. Moses was minding his own business, tending his flock, then became curious about this bush that was burning but not consumed. Once God finally gets his attention, God declares a whole bunch of things, but all of those details apparently do not satisfy Moses. Finally, Moses asks God for a name. ‘Who are you?’ and ‘How do you fit into my world?’
God responds with “I am who I am”—YHWH—four Hebrew letters that would go on to become the most sacred of names for God in Jewish tradition. Yet, taking the name “I AM” also avoids the question in some ways. It’s an answer that is a non-answer. “I AM” is a God who refuses to be boxed in with labels. “I AM” is a God who embraces change and lays claim to a story that is not yet revealed.
As a person with a non-binary gender experience (neither “male” nor “female”), I still need to use words to explain my gender, but I also love the freedom of knowing that I am made in the image of this defiant and open-ended God who is “I AM.” This God gives me permission to be who I am, too—beyond the labels and categories that may make some people more comfortable.
As you move through this week of devotionals, you have the opportunity to reflect on how you, too, are made in the image of this defiant and open-ended God who is “I AM.” How is your understanding of your truest self still in the process and yet unfolding? Do any of the labels or names you’ve been given not seem to fit you perfectly? Is there a real you that is yet to be revealed to the world? What are the words you have yet to claim for yourself?
You are loved. When you are asking for clarification. When you are looking for the right words. When you resist labels. You are loved.