Gender, Naming and Fluidity



I taught my first class of the spring semester last week, and, as I usually do, I went through my whole “functional extrovert” speech.  The gist of it is that while I know not everyone is an extrovert—and indeed, many people who go into professional ministry are introverts [and there’s nothing wrong with that!]—all public minsters must be able to function as extroverts when the occasion calls for it.  That means that in certain settings, in certain situations, with certain groups of people, all public ministers need to be able to present themselves as extroverts:  actually seeking out and initiating contact and conversation with a wide variety of people, greeting them warmly and with enthusiasm, and being one of the last to leave the party.  [It’s OK to go home and crash when it’s over.]  Therefore, in my class, I also insist on active participation in discussions from everyone, even the introverts; I tell them this is a good time to start practicing their extroverted behavior.

Now, the reality is, of course, that few people, if any, are pure extroverts or introverts.  Instead, we all exist somewhere on the spectrum, and our place on that spectrum isn’t fixed.  I know people whose Myers-Briggs profile switched over time, after they found themselves in a new job, a new location, a new family situation, etc., etc.  The reality is that our identities always are constructed:  they are a combination of our internal dispositions, feelings, orientations, and self-understanding; and our external environments, social networks, vocational demands and contextual surroundings.  How we self-identify and publicly perform evolves over time, from our youth, through college, and into adulthood, maturity and old age.  I think this openness and flexibility is a good thing for most of us, as it helps us grow, change, and respond positively and constructively to new people and new situations.

This was all in the back of my mind when I read the story published in The New York Times on Feb. 3rd, 2015—here’s the link:  A Third Gender: Neutral.  The story was titled, “A University Recognized a Third Gender:  Neutral,” and it was about the decision that the University of Vermont made to enable students to choose their own first name—legal or not—and also their own preferred pronouns.  [The article reproduced a chart, created by the L.G.B.T. Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin, offering options:  “e/ey,” “he,” “she,” “per,” “zie,” “they,” “ve,” & “sie”—with corresponding pronouns in different grammatical cases.]  In case you are wondering, the University’s investment in this commitment included the money needed to make these choices possible in the campus-wide database, so that professors and others would all have access to this information, without making the student have to explain “zirself” over and over again.  [Another option is foregoing pronouns altogether, and using “name only,” which is actually what many theologians do when speaking of God.  Hmmm….might we have something to learn from the LGBTQI community here?]

As an outsider, and someone who doesn’t have any transgender or genderqueer friends, I don’t know from personal experience what it is like to find oneself caught between the male/female dichotomy that allows no grey area, no fluidity.  But, I do know what it feels like to be put into a box that doesn’t quite fit—a box that I might be fine with sometimes, but I definitely don’t want the lid closed:  I want to be able to get out when I choose, too.  When people label me as an academic, a Christian, an athlete, a football fan—whatever—those label carry all sorts of connotations, good and bad; some of them fit, and some of them don’t.  Some of them I welcome, and some of them I resist.  I want the freedom to be who I am, the freedom to show different faces to the world, the freedom to evolve and change over time, the freedom to be one thing and another--or both things at once.

Listen to this exchange with a student who was interviewed for the article:  Identifying as genderqueer is an opportunity to self-invent, unburdened from social expectations about dress and behavior. Occasionally [the student] Gieselman wishes for a lower voice and flatter chest, but other times feels O.K. with, even happy about, having a feminine physique. ‘Even within the same day or the next day I can suddenly really love how my chest looks in a sundress’, said Gieselman, who wears two small nose rings. In the bedroom closet hang T-shirts, flannels, dresses and a rack of bow ties.”  

How is our theology making room for people like Gieselman?  How are we allowing ourselves to be taught by ‘them’ [Gieselman’s preferred pronoun]?  What can we learn about our understanding of the imago Dei, of creation, of sin and redemption?  Lots, I imagine; and it will be a better world for us all when our understanding of personhood isn’t so fixed, and when we all have a greater degree of fluidity as we seek to be the people God created us to be:  loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others.