A Confusing Gift of Gender (Non-Binary Theme)

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                           Nov. 17, 2019

Matthew 19:9-12; Psalm 139

Twelve days ago, a human rights adjudicator ruled that Manitoba must join Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the NW Territories in allowing people to change their sex designation on their birth certificates to X, instead of having to choose male or female. This was a tremendous relief to people who consider themselves to be non-binary, which means having a gender identity that doesn’t fit neatly into a male or female category.

There could be a number of reasons for people to identify as non-binary. Some may be what is called intersex with bodies that are not clearly male or female. Others may have what is called gender dysphoria, which means that they feel their gender is not in alignment with their body. Yet others may feel that their gender is fluid. To force people to choose a particular gender may force them to make a decision that is at odds with their sense of identity. We are also beginning to realize that corrective surgery at birth for babies who are not clearly male or female can be damaging and even mistaken. Gender is a complex identity that is based on the interaction of chromosomes, hormones and physiology.

How are we, as a faith community, to make sense of this? Can our scripture and our Christian faith help guide us in this relatively new area of exploration? We might be surprised to find out that it is not as new as we think, nor is it as foreign to our Christian and Jewish roots as we might believe.

In both our First and Second Testaments—the Jewish Hebrew scriptures and the Greek scriptures—there are references to eunuchs. The word eunuch was an umbrella term for people who were intersex, or sterile, or what we might call today a third gender, two-spirited or non-binary. While Jesus said nothing about sexual relations amongst same-sex partners, he did talk about eunuchs. Just prior to our gospel passage for today, Jesus was addressing marriage and divorce. He spoke against divorce and some interpreters suggest that this was because of punitive laws that allowed men to divorce women very easily at that time, stripping divorced women of their rights. His disciples were so surprised at Jesus’ strong rejection of divorce that they asked him if it would not be better if people simply refrained from marrying at all. Jesus replied that only a few would be able to refrain from marriage because of their particular identity as eunuchs. Jesus then identified three types of eunuchs known in his time. The first were eunuchs from birth, by which he may have meant those who were intersex or sterile. He then named those who were made eunuchs by others, which means those who were castrated. Lastly, he named those who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God, by which he probably meant those choosing celibacy. Jesus honours each of these categories of eunuchs as those who have a special gift that most cannot follow. “Let anyone accept this who can,” Jesus concludes.

The Talmud, which is the interpretation of the Jewish scripture and was written at the beginning of the 6th century CE, included examples of people who were created with bodies that didn’t fit male or female categories.

Our Christian history records 25 saints, born as women but who presented themselves as men. The most well-known of these is Joan of Arc. Even though the church knew about their gender fluidity, it eventually canonized them.

The Greco-Roman world called those with ambiguous gender characteristics hermaphrodites, named after a God who exhibited both female and male traits.

Many First Nations in North America have long honoured those called two-spirited, meaning those embued with both male and female spirits. They have often been the spiritual leaders or shamans of the community because they are considered to have great insight, wisdom and spiritual guidance born of their ability to inhabit both the female and male worlds. They are not forced to choose one gender, but rather are honoured in their ability to be both. They, too, are non-binary.

Humanity has long been aware of non-binary people across the ages and across cultures and religions. It is not new, nor is it foreign to the Christian church. Sometimes, the response has been condemnation, while at other times, the response has been respect and honour. Jesus chose to honour them, and even referred to their identity as a gift.

As we embark on an Affirming journey, we are entering an educational process where we will try to learn as much as we can about people marginalized because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Last Sunday after church Rev. Patrick Woodbeck and Rev. Karen Lumley told us their stories about coming out as gay and lesbian to family and to the church. Today, we are learning about different types of gender identity and next Sunday, we will be honoured to have Lara Rae as our guest preacher. She will tell us about her transition as a transgender person and the role of faith in her transition.

Even though this is not new ground for our ancestors, it is probably new ground for many of us. Our society is just beginning to adapt to it. Our dictionary now allows individuals to use the pronoun they instead of he or she. I have found pronouns are very difficult to keep straight (no pun intended), as our society is extremely gendered. We see only male or female and when we’re not sure, we still try to deduce their gender along these binary lines. When I find out that my guess is wrong, it is very difficult for me to unlearn my first perception.

I’m sure that we have many questions and perhaps some concerns. I ask everyone to consider this with an open mind and an open heart. In II Corinthians 6, Paul urges the Corinthians to open wide their hearts, just as he opened his to them. Open-heartedness is one of the spiritual attributes that I found in thriving congregations. Today, at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary, Rev. Sheena Trotter-Dennis is preaching on this open-hearted passage. She writes that Paul invites the Corinthians to live a spacious and expansive life. We usually live small lives that are fearful, closed off and unwilling to change. Instead, the Spirit enables us to move away from fear and expand our viewpoints. Her sermon is quite applicable to our reflections this morning.

In our conversations and our considerations about transgender and non-binary people, please remember that we are not only talking about people outside of our congregation, but we are talking about us. There are people in this congregation who identify as non-binary or transgender and they need this place to be a safe place for them. As we listen to people’s stories, I would ask us to practice radical hospitality, which our Bible, in both the First and Second Testaments, has taught us. This means to be welcoming and caring of the stranger, of the foreigner, of the dispossessed and marginalized. The bottom line in these conversations is respect for someone’s personal story, even if we can’t understand it.

We will make mistakes. We will use the wrong pronoun. I often make these mistakes. But when we do, we need only apologize and try again. We need to be gentle with ourselves, as well as with others. I would ask us to keep the words of Jesus before us as he honoured the special gift of a eunuch’s identity and asked us, his followers, to do the same.