Last week, within the span of a few days, The New York Times published two articles (first, second) pushing back against the Trump administration’s plans to roll back an Obama-era policy concerning gender identity. As I’ve written elsewhere, the administration’s impending memo is hardly controversial, despite what activists say. Despite the impression given by the Times, these articles reflect the viewpoints of LGBT activists rather than impartial science or sound philosophy.
The first article, published a day after the initial story, is by science journalist Denise Grady and titled “Anatomy Does Not Determine Gender, Experts Say.” In the article, Grady quotes from only one source, Dr. Joshua D. Safer, executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. Safer is also president of the United States Professional Association of Transgender Health.
Right away in this article, readers are told that defining one’s sex based on biology is “oversimplified and often medically meaningless.” But when asked about what determines gender identity—whether one is male or female—Safer speculates. It’s biological in some capacity, he grants, but he cannot say for sure. All that’s left to define one’s gender is their “identity”—“a person’s powerful, core knowledge of who they are.” It’s worth noting that the ambiguity of Dr. Safer’s argument is only exceeded by the disagreement among transgender voices on whether any biological component is necessary at all.
The second is an opinion article, “Why Sex Is Not Binary,” by Anne Fausto-Sterling, emeritus professor of biology and gender studies at Brown University. Fausto-Sterling, a lesbian and feminist whose career has focused on critiquing traditional understandings of gender, explains the sequencing of how persons develop sexually in-utero and through puberty.
According to Fausto-Sterling, “It has long been known that there is no single biological measure that unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories—male or female.” This is a breathtaking and sweeping claim. If such a statement is accurate, it means that, up until now, all of human history’s attempt to understand the embodied reality of men and women has been in error. It would mean that every human society with norms that reflect the male-female binary has been wrong.
Has Humanity Always Been Wrong?
To bolster her claim, Fausto-Sterling relies on the existence of intersex people to prove that the male-female binary is neither binary, clear, nor stable. In her view, an exact determination of sex is difficult, since sex is the result of embryonic and post-natal “layering” and a “balance of power among gene networks acting together or in a particular sequence.” In layman’s terms, according to Fausto-Sterling, identifying sex is fruitless and indeterminate because no stable norm exists to measure male and female. The male-female binary is a teeter-totter.
But is that accurate? How should we understand the existence of intersex persons? First, it’s a category often distinct from the transgender phenomenon (though a high percentage of intersex persons also report discomfort with their internal sense of gender). Intersex persons have medically diagnosable conditions affecting their chromosomes, genitalia, or both. Yet the vast majority of transgender-identified persons have no chromosomal or bodily impairment. Second, to use intersex conditions as a way to undermine the reality of male-female binary is akin to saying that individuals born without a left arm constitute a new species of one-armed humans. It overlooks the reality of a norm to evaluate what has gone wrong. Moreover, the idea that sex is a balance of power between genes means the primary and secondary sex characteristics that men and women develop do not communicate any real male or female essence. In short, male-female do not exist, but are imagined, fluid, and permeable categories born of genetic conflict.
To use intersex conditions as a way to undermine the reality of male-female binary is akin to saying that individuals born without a left arm constitute a new species of one-armed humans. It overlooks the reality of a norm to evaluate what has gone wrong.
What’s the conclusion the reader draws from these stories? Two of the world’s foremost experts confidently dismiss the timeless truth that sex and gender identity are chromosomal and embodied realities—while admitting no one knows where gender identity originates or, for that matter, what constitutes male or female. This admission means humanity is left with no stable definition of itself. And the lack of stable definition for male and female highlights one of the most problematic implications of the transgender movement—the abolition of humanity.
The consequences for society cannot be overstated. From bathrooms to medical treatments to housing prisoners, how we identify sex matters. Without a stable definition of what a man or woman is, society’s most important constituency—humanity—is left wondering what, in fact, it is.
For determining what constitutes a male or female, we’re left with what UCLA sociologist Rogers Brubaker argues is the “asserted objectivity of subjective identity that makes it possible to defend choice in the name of the unchosen and change in the name of the unchanging.” To be clear, this radical subjectivity is incoherent and allows for absurdities, such as transracialism (e.g., Rachel Dolezal) or transageism.
The New York Times does not give a full, accurate picture of the larger debate. To be fair, Safer and Fausto-Sterling are reputable professionals in their field. But to exclusively feature their viewpoints sends the signal there is no other reputable thought that disagrees with their perspective. This is hardly the case, as a growing body of research, testimony, and dissent shows.
How Christians Can Respond
Scripture speaks of the male-female binary on both special revelation and general revelation grounds simultaneously. What exactly does this mean?
The Bible provides a substantive and coherent account for defining male and female identity, an account that comports with what is true of human nature and human design. This design reflects both what the Bible teaches and also what is true of creation itself. More specifically, Scripture affirms an objective, enduring male-female binary (Gen. 1:26–28), the presence of which is established on creational and teleological grounds. This binary is objective, universal, intelligible, and differentiated (e.g., primary and secondary sex characteristics).
Without a stable definition of what a man or woman is, society’s most important constituency—humanity—is left wondering what, in fact, it is.
Speaking even more specifically, what does it mean, creationally and biblically, to define male and female?
According to natural law scholar Ryan T. Anderson, “Sex, in terms of male or female, is identified by the organization of the organism for sexually reproductive acts. Sex as a status—male or female—is a recognition of the organization of a body that has the ability to engage in sex as an act.” Anderson’s use of “organization” is crucial. According to the natural law tradition, the identity of something is determined by its purpose.
Anderson adduces research from Johns Hopkins psychiatrists Paul McHugh and Lawrence Meyer, who issued an extensive report looking at the field of scholarly research around sexual orientation and gender identity. According to their findings, academic literature that argues gender identity is distinct from biological sex does not provide sufficient evidence to verify the claim. In response, McHugh and Meyer offer important insights into why basing male-female identity on biological and reproductive design provides a “stable” conceptual basis. According to them:
The underlying basis of maleness and femaleness is the distinction between the reproductive roles of the sexes; in mammals such as humans, the female gestates offspring and the male impregnates the female. More universally, the male of the species fertilizes the egg cells provided by the female of the species. This conceptual basis for sex roles is binary and stable, and allows us to distinguish males from females on the grounds of their reproductive systems, even when these individuals exhibit behaviors that are not typical of males or females.
In the above definition, male and female are not culturally constructed; they are God-constructed, through his special design of—and organizational purpose for—male and female bodies.
The above definition is, strictly speaking, biological in nature, in that each refers back to the reproductive organization of the sexes as the primary characteristic for distinguishing sex difference. Mayer and McHugh note these distinctions are “binary and stable,” which implies that any definition of man and woman apart from reproductive organization is on shaky ground.
God’s Design Defines Sex
The above definitions parallel with the creation account of man and woman revealed in Genesis 1:26–28. The creation of man and woman in Genesis is both structural and dynamic. As male and female beings made in God’s image, their design is ordered toward a particular purpose—filling the earth, subduing it, exercising dominion. More specifically, that purpose is accomplished through male and female design. The act of being fruitful and multiplying hinges on—and springs from—their respective sex distinction. In this account, general revelation parallels with special revelation. As each of us knows, sex makes babies, and the sexual act relies on male-female complementarity.
Genesis 1 and 2 explains categorically, thematically, and observationally what biology confirms as reality.
What is happening in the description of male and female offered in Scripture? A biblical view of what defines a man and woman, then, must be defined according to God’s creation design: the biological design of a man and a woman is (a) made for a covenantal marriage union with (b) their sexually opposite counterpart and is (c) oriented to fulfill a creational mandate.
The biblical narrative around Genesis 1 and 2 explains categorically, thematically, and observationally what biology confirms as reality—that maleness and femaleness are biological realities according to their respective reproductive organization.
 There are two main camps espousing a basis for gender identity. There are biological theorists who put gender identity within the arena of biology (e.g., “brain-sex theory”) and constructivists who see gender identity as purely a matter of self-description. For an example of the latter, see Sophie Searcy, “Why We Don’t Need Brain Scans to Confirm Trans People Are Trans.” Searcy writes: “Trans brain research and its recent coverage seek to measure trans people according to a cis standard—a standard that is itself a debunked fiction originally created by publication bias. The legitimacy of trans identities does not hinge on whether or not trans brains look like cis brains. We don’t need brain scans that cost thousands of dollars to legitimize or diagnose trans people; if we inform children about trans identities and remove stigmas that keep trans people marginalized, we can already validate the genders of trans kids free of cost simply by asking them who they are.” See also Alex Barasch, “Biology Is Not Destiny: Seeking a Scientific Explanation for Transgender Identity Could Do More Harm than Good,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2018.