The widely circulated Associated Press article, “‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at U.S. colleges” provides the opportunity for me to address a topic that has been sitting in my “write about this” folder for several weeks.
During the Covenant Network’s “Marriage Matters” national conference at the end of October, I attended a workshop led by a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who is also a transgender person. Alex McNeill now heads up the More Light Presbyterians nationwide. McNeill was born biologically female but has transitioned to a male identity. He and his wife live in the Washington D.C. area.
“There is a plurality of gender expression but self-named gender identity is where the power is,” McNeill declared in the workshop entitled “Connecting the Dots: Gender, Identity and Sexual Orientation.”
It opened with the invitation to “introduce yourself with the pronoun you prefer to help us honor you.” McNeill led off by saying, “I’m a transgender person, and when I was in transition it wasn’t always clear that I preferred to be referred to with male pronouns.”
When it came around to me I introduced myself as a female “and I prefer female pronouns.” It sounded strange when I said it then, and it still sounds strange today.
McNeill acknowledged that reality for the room in saying that “the goal is to build solidarity by learning to think in such a way that is not where you are.”
Workshops participants were expected to follow a list of stated “covenants,” including:
- “Valuing people in the nuances of their experience which can be wildly infinite vs. limiting people to clearly delineated definitions or boxes,”
- “Being hospitable by inviting questions but not lurid, invasive or inappropriate,”
- “Being vulnerable by taking risks while maintaining self-care, knowing your own comfortable limits.”
McNeill then turned to the graphic (at right) that would provide the basis of conversation.
McNeill described this as “a gender binary,” straight line thinking about a subject that he and others no longer see as this straight forward.
He said that “at the moment of birth people ask if it’s a boy or a girl.” McNeill contended that is unjust as it suggests that “personhood doesn’t get established until one of these two boxes is checked.”
McNeill said, “If we check the ‘girl’ box then cultural expectation is that her sex would be female and gender identity would be as a woman, her gender expression would be feminine (makeup, attire, hairstyle), and she would be attracted to males.”
Similarly, he said, “If we check the ‘boy’ box, cultural expectation is that his sex would be male, gender identity as a man, gender expression would be masculine, and he would be attracted to females.”
McNeill then said, “This system is not working for everybody. These little boxes don’t fit for everyone.”
Here, McNeill began to define several controversial terms.
Noting that “even biological sex is not as fixed as you might have thought,” and that “the choice made at birth by doctors and parents may or may not align with the person down the continuum over time,” McNeill told attendees that the term “intersex” is used to describe “a person born with ambiguous genitalia, missing chromosomes and hormonal proportions.”
On the gender identity spectrum, he identified those who see themselves as “Genderqueer.” McNeill noted that “queer is a term that has had a troubled history. Some folks prefer the term queer for those who don’t feel strictly one or the other on the gender identity continuum.”
I note here that gender fluidity is a likewise “new” term that is used to describe a person who fluctuates over time or even day to day on the gender expression spectrum.
Another term used here is androgynous. McNeill said, “This is where the conversation about pronoun preference is helpful. To preserve the ambiguity, some prefer the pronoun ‘they.'”
They to describe an individual, you ask? Yes. McNeill illustrated, “Barbara went to the store and they shopped for cosmetics.”
Finally arriving at the bottom line issue of attraction, McNeill noted that there are “folks at all points along the continuum.” Adding that the terms “bisexual and queer are used here as well.”
McNeill then addressed his own experience as a transgender person. Adding the word “Transgender” to the top of the chart and working his way down and across the page, McNeill explained that “Transgender … can start anywhere on the sex spectrum.” Then scrolling down to the last spectrum (“Attracted to”) he said, “and there’s no set answer to the attracted to piece” for a transgender person. Then he pointed to the “Gender Identity” line on the screen and said, “but the crossing over to the gender identity that is not historically associated with one’s anatomical sex is the heart of the matter.”
What he was saying is that a transgender person may start out as anatomically male or female and their transgenderism has nothing to do with whether or not they are attracted to men or women. What’s at issue is their desire to “cross over” from the gender identity historically aligned with the body in which they were born — and that is accomplished by changing their anatomy.
He said that “How we express our inner-sense of what it means to be male or female is an evolution of understanding.”
When asked about other terms McNeill noted that “the term transvestite has been used negatively. But he distinguished transvestitism from transgenderism, saying, “It is less about gender identity and more about expression, and it is impermanent.” He then noted that “all of these terms have evolved over time.”
That evolution of the meaning of terms over time has more than just the LGBTQQIAAP community in need of a workshop. Those of us who seek to engage in meaningful conversation now need a lexicon.
To this point, McNeill concluded, “Cultural competency is one thing, earning the right to use the term in a way that is understood as respectful is another.”
Within the PCUSA world of LGBT (and sometimes Q) advocacy there is a range of use and even of meaning attached to the letters in the acronym. The challenge remains to report accurately without offense when the subject matter is both deeply personal and profoundly controversial.
McNeill asked, “Who gets to define these terms, feminine and masculine?”, adding that “It’s all a very subjective reality.”
Therein may well lie the proverbial rub. Some participants in both our denominational and cultural conversations about identity, marriage and moral practice view all reality as subjective, others view all reality as subject to objective Truth. One perspective sees identity as fluid, while the other sees identity fixed redemptively in a God who will not be moved. One worldview sees moral practice as relative to present proclivities and personal feelings, while the other views moral practice as a reflection or derivative of a perfectly Holy God. Each set of ideas has consequences, and each charts a path for the Church and the world. But these paths are significantly parted, and they further diverge every day.