A few years back the American Academy of Religion had a “Gay and Lesbian Studies Group.” Then more recently it became the “LGBT Studies Group.” Then a couple of years ago it became the “LGBTIQ Studies Group.” What was going on? Scholars of gay and lesbian studies became increasingly aware that human sexuality is a lot more complicated than just “gay and straight.” So I thought we’d better define our terms before we get any further.
Lesbian: A lesbian is a female who is not only attracted to other females sexually (rather than males) but sees that attraction as a core personal identity. Lesbians do not apologize for their attractions and/or sexual preferences, they embrace them. A person could embrace the term “lesbian” even though she is not in a sexual relationship. She feels her sexual identity is a part of “who she is.”
Gay: The term “gay” is applied to males who are not only attracted to other males sexually (rather than females) but see that attraction as a core personal identity. A “gay person” refers to someone who identifies with his sexual identity, whether or not he is in a sexual relationship. When people speak of gays and lesbians as a group, the term “same-sex relationships” is increasingly preferred to the term “homosexuality,” which can have pejorative overtones in some contexts.
Bisexual: Here’s where things can get a bit confusing. They are individuals who are more or less equally attracted to both sexes or either sex. They can “play it both ways.” Some prefer to call this condition “pansexual” or “fluid” sexuality. Bisexuality is not the same thing as homosexuality, where a person is primarily attracted to the same sex, although it can easily be confused with it. Some prefer to think of sexuality as a continuum, with opposite-sex attraction at one end, same-sex attraction at the other, and bisexual in the middle. But bisexuals may not be “50/50,” the attractions may be fluid, yet more inclined toward one gender than the other.
Transgender: Things get even more complicated here. A transgendered person is “none of the above” although they may appear at various times to be “all of the above.” Transgender means that the gender (and often sexuality) of brain and body are in conflict. In 99% or more of cases, the gender of the brain is the same as that of the body. But in less than one per cent of cases, a person is gender conflicted. The gender they identify with is not the one that manifests itself physically. External gender is determined in the first three months after conception. Brain gender (whether a person considers themselves male or female) is determined 4-6 months after conception. I once assumed that people who cross-dress or pursue sex-reassignment surgery were “making it up.” But I now understand that male and female brains are not the same and can usually be distinguished by brain scans. So if someone is physically male but identifies as a female, it is not usually some imaginary condition, it is because that person’s brain was assembled differently than that of the typical physically male person. Another term for this experience is “gender dysphoria.”
If a person’s brain is female and is attracted to males, but the body is male, it will appear as same-sex attraction, but is actually not at the level of the brain. So this category complicates things for a church community that wants simple, “biblical,” categories for dealing with relational situations. Later on, we will address the question of the degree to which the Bible anticipated these and other complications in the gender reality we are exposed to today.
Intersex: The term intersex is used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with an anatomy that doesn’t neatly fit the definitions of either male or female. In other words, in about one per cent of live births, the physical gender is ambiguous. One cannot tell by looking at the genitals if the person is male or female, or the person may have external genitalia for both or neither male and/or female. Or a person may have male genitalia on the outside, but female organs on the inside. To confine conversations about sexuality to heterosexuality or homosexuality is to ignore the tremendous complexity of possible conditions a person may find themselves in.
Queer: When I was small “queer” was a derogatory term for people who were “different,” usually homosexual. Today the term is applied to all of the above, to sexualities and genders that don’t fit the typical mold. It is a “catch-all” category for anyone who doesn’t fit the standard experience of gender and sexuality. So scholars involved in studying any of the above realities sometimes speak of “queer studies.” As such, this is no longer considered a derogatory term but a category grouping together people who don’t fit the typical gender mold.
If all of the above is way more complicated than you wanted to know, please be aware that I have only scratched the surface. I believe the above definitions are helpful, but they are over-simplifications for the sake of communicating a basic understanding. There are many types of transgender people and many types of intersex conditions. Scientists are currently aware of some 36 genes that affect the gender outcome, both of body and brain. If any one of these genes develops or combines with others out of the “norm,” it can create noticeable differences from the typical male and female presentation. In some cases several genes may develop or relate to each other in unusual ways. So the varieties of sexual and gender manifestation are far more numerous than we thought and much of that is not a “choice” that a person made along the way.
When it comes to faith and to church community, this issue requires the compassion and understanding of Christ toward those who seem “queer” to us. The natural reaction to “differentness” is rejection, but the gospel calls us to treat people in a way that is counter to our natural, sinful reaction. Fleshing out the previous two sentences is a major reason for this blog series.