Saturday, April 11, 2015

Gender and the Australian Government

This quote about the gender of those who can be married in Australia comes from page 62 of the 'Guidelines for Marriage Celebrants' document, which was updated last year.
"Under Australian law, a marriage may only be solemnised between a man and woman. In most cases, this will be straightforward. However, where a party to a marriage is transgender, intersex or of an indeterminate or unspecified gender the question may be more difficult to determine."
The guidelines recommend both sensitivity and clarity because while under the Marriage Act (1961) only a man may marry a woman and vice versa, people are legally allowed to change gender. So on page 63 the guidelines state:
"A person’s sex at the time of their birth is not necessarily determinative of their sex at a given time in the future. A person who has undergone gender re-assignment surgery can marry as their reassigned gender, provided that they are marrying someone of the opposite sex."
The current working assumption of the Australian Government is that gender and sex are separate concepts. Sex is described as congentigal and biological while gender is cultural and existential. Significantly gender may be altered on official documents. So on page 2 of the 'Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender' this is the opening statement:
"The Australian Government recognises that individuals may identify and be recognised within the community as a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth or during infancy or as an indeterminate sex and/or gender, and this should be recognised and reflected in their personal records held by Australian Government departments and agencies."
Interestingly there is no rationale provided for the distinction between "gender" and "sex" or the purpose of changing gender. However it's clear that while the Marriage Act (1961) only allows two people, one from either traditional gender category, to marry; fluidity is allowed, as long as it's officially documented.

Thinking Theologically
  • A. There's no reason to disrupt the traditional gender categories established in Genesis and assumed by Jesus. 
  • B. Personhood, which includes gender categories, is made of three parts:
    1. Situational: (Ethos) Biological material such as chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics etc (Christians would include an ideal, pre-Fall set of gender characteristics)
    2. Existential: (Pathos) An inner life such as your self perception etc (Christians would include a spiritual dimension)
    3. Normative: (Logos) External recognition, sociological cues, the perceptions of others etc (Christians would include divine recognition)
  • C. Note that exceptions show only that there are exceptions. 
    • They merit attention and explanation
    • But in and of themselves don't prove that an argument invalid
  • D. The Australian Government division between "gender" and "sex" is an invalid one because gender is a larger metaphysical category, as shown above, while biological "sex" is simply a description of one part of personhood, the 'situational' dimension.
    • It's a fallacy to reduce gender (or personhood for that matter) to a blood test.
    • Incidentally, this reveals that the Australian Government want their modernist cake (sex is merely congential biology) and their post-modern eating (and gender is whatever you what it to be). 
  • E. The variety of cultural expressions of the two genders through time and space simply show that the three parts of gender are presented differently through time and space. Note however this is variety within a spectrum of two traditional genders, not the modern subversion of these two categories, an important historical note. In other words there have always been a rough cluster of male and female situational aspects to gender, a rough cluster of male and female existential aspects to gender and a rough cluster of external clues to being either male or female. 
    • That people changed genders, became eunuchs, cross-dressed or had surgery, didn't change the cultural clustering around two genders across these three aspects of being human.
  • F. The theological gap, as I've observed previously is in our language and pastoral care, how do we respectfully describe and care for people who are transitioning genders?

The Presbyterian Church

At the moment there is talk within the Presbyterian Church about withdrawing as marriage celebrants if the Marriage Act (1961) is changed. However it already has! We're participating in something that according to the guidelines, that already exist, undermines traditional gender categories. It seems clumsy and unnecessarily political to withdraw from the Act when we haven't sorted out what culpability is and looks like as citizens and consumers. Given how litigious western culture is becoming and how controversial traditional gender categories are, we need to move immediately to create a legal defence fund for Presbyterian ministers and organisations.


Mike Westerman said...

"There's no reason to disrupt the traditional gender categories established in Genesis and assumed by Jesus. Personhood, which includes gender, is made of biological material, an existential inner life and external recognition. As Christians we need to think logically and the Australian Government division between "gender" and "sex" is an invalid one because gender is a larger metaphysical category while biological "sex" is simply a description. Gender of course includes cultural elements which vary across time and space but that doesn't invalidate the existence and maintenance of two traditional genders."

Luke I'm not sure I follow this argument: I would have thought your statements that gender and sex are different both unmine your arguments against the government distinction and your traditionalist stance of maintaining the existence of two distinct genders. Neither should it be surprising that the Bible simply repeats and upholds the cultural positions of its writers. I can't see why you would uphold this particularly cultural element (which is dispensed with anyway in the New Heavens and New Earth) while happily dispensing with others. Maybe the world isn't as neatly binary as you would wish for?

Luke Isham said...

Hi Mike,

I was hoping to give a swift summative answer but clearly I sacrificed clarity. I've rewritten it, are there any points my argument can be made clearer or less disagreeable?

I think the Bible (read philosophically) makes the case for a three-fold description of gender which has been presented in different cultural expressions across time.

Good point about the eschatology, I'm in the 'gender continues post-resurection camp', and definitely not in the 'we continue as spirit beings camp'. Because Jesus is recognisable to the disciples post-resurrection.

andrew westerman said...

So, we are to understand that Presbyterian Ministers will need to go cap in hand to their constituents to prevent them being sued for refusing to marry people of the same sex.

It's a pity the Ministers could not simply improve their knowledge of biology. The Y-chromosome is a significant element of the genome, comprising, however, less than 2% of the total code, but the 'difference' one chooses to see is arbitrary and mainly driven not by genetics, but obvious phenotypical differences - ie. genitalia.

But variations amongst females can be so large as to make a case for sub-genders and sub-sub-genders, if one was so bothered and obsessed (just Google some of the literature on this).

To be consistent, we would have to build a taxonomy of genetic differences of which sex would be a significant but not critical identifier. Olympic female athletes probably have more genetic advantages that allow them to succeed than I do, as a male. It's the genomic characteristics, Stupid.

As with marriage and all other similar constructs, the categorisation is for a political or social position, not for reflecting some fundamental truth. You and your fellows should look to that imperative to treat all, male and female, as equal, as Christ supposedly did (if we want to accept the Apostles witness on face value). The principle is that the unity of humanity is far more important than the differences, even if we accept the difference as fundamental to a person's social status.

This can only lead to gender/sex blindness, as one would hope there is skin colour blindness, hair colour blindness, disability blindness and height blindness.

I'm afraid this 'call to alms' is a sad indictment of those who seek the protection and says nothing at all about a Christ-like posture, or about Christianity, for that matter, not to mention a willful disregard for social mores.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Roo,

"Cap in hand" you make it sound like a bad thing? But isn't that how communities have always worked, pooling their money to pay their religious leaders?

Anyway aren't you being reductionistic by making gender simply a biological thing? Isn't there more to gender than that? Or is everyone an undifferentiated sludge?

Of course not, the fact that you and are disagreeing reveals that differences between individuals exist. However we're also interacting and it's about the moral quality of our interactions that matter. But observable gender distinctions remain, clustered across those three parts of personhood, situational, existential and normative. Exceptions such as muscular female athletes don't change the cluster of biological attributes that support the division of humans into men and women.

Jon Eastgate said...

Hi Luke, I found this a really interesting analysis. However, I fell at the first hurdle, "the traditional gender categories established in Genesis and assumed by Jesus". You have built a large superstructure on a very small foundation, that phrase, "male and female he created them", and I'm not sure those words will bear it.

It's also far from clear what Jesus assumed, especially since we know for sure he didn't read the Hebrew scriptures as we do. It's interesting that although the Torah provides a detailed set of marriage laws, Jesus' commentary on them is to refer back to this Genesis passage, "the two shall become one flesh", to warn his hearers that marriage isn't be dissolved lightly whatever the Law may say.

This seems to me completely in keeping with Jesus'and the Apostles' overall approach to ethics, stripping the Law back to it's underlying principles, especially the command to love of which faithfulness in marriage is an expression. In Galatians and elsewhere Paul is scathing about Christians who want to recreate the Law in a Christian context. Perhaps the Presbyterian church ( and others) should take that as a warning on this subject...

Luke Isham said...

Hi Jon,

Yes, there was more philosophy than theology in 'Thinking Theologically' section! I think Genesis as a proof text for only two genders is adequate. (BTW I understand prooftexts to be representative summaries of underlying principles.) If I had time, a proper theology of gender would show that Scripture only ever assumes the traditional two genders across the Creation-Fall-Redemption trajectory. The study would then show that various ethical situations involving gender (positive or negative) assume a binary gender pattern.

Certainly the weight of recorded history is of two genders, with situational, existential and normative clusters of male and female characteristics. It would be anachronistic to say gender is fluid concept because some are working to subvert it.

If I may push back on your "we don't know how Jesus read the Old Testament" argument, how can we be certain of any approach, including your skepticism in this case? Now I read from a conservative evangelical approach so of course I favour lots of continuity between Jesus and the Old Testament and then Jesus and the Apostles and then Apostles and Church history and then Church history and us.

But given all that I agree; Jesus' approach is going back to the underlying principles. And I also agree we shouldn't try to recreate the Old Testament laws in modern Australia. (I'm no theonomist!)

Thanks for stopping by literally and metaphorically!