The Problem With Gender Self Identification

Matt Fuller | January 9th 2020

The following article is an extract from Be True to Yourself by Matt Fuller. 

Take two high-profile individuals who wanted to self define. Back in 2015, Caitlyn Jenner—known until then as Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner—transitioned from a man to a woman, saying, “I am a woman … I was not genetically born that way … But I still identify as a woman.” This was met with huge support and media celebration.

Yet shortly afterwards, Rachel Dolezal (a white woman) hit the headlines when it was discovered that she was running a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, despite having two Caucasian parents. Dolezal insisted that she identified as black. She said, “White isn’t a race; it’s a state of mind.” This was met with outrage and vitriol. She lost her job and was hounded for months on social media. One commentator wrote, “Transgender activists transition out of medical necessity. Dolezal’s transition to black is surrounded by layers of deception” (Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian, 25 Feb 17).

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Pause and think about that statement. Why does a man feeling like a woman mean that transitioning is a medical necessity, but feeling and defining yourself as black is shrouded in layers of deception? How do you decide which feelings are legitimate—and should be acted on—and which are not? Why was Dolezal denied the freedom to self-define?

I don’t ask these questions aggressively but in confusion. They highlight the fact that when we reject God’s definition of who we are, life becomes complicated. In our current cultural moment, one person is affirmed for defining themselves by how they feel, but another is told that how they feel is irrelevant. So which is it?

Whose right wins?

There’s also the question of what happens when the freedom for some to self-create comes into conflict with the right of protection for others. Trevor Phillips chaired the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission from 2006 to 2012. He was tasked with protecting equality across nine grounds: age, disability, gender, race, religion, maternity, marriage, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. These nine areas are protected characteristics in UK law.

However, Phillips is now publicly arguing that the proposed movement to self-declaration of gender makes a mockery of Britain’s decades-long struggle for fairness. The proposal is that, rather than continue the current system, where someone requires a medical diagnosis and a two-year period of living in their acquired identity before they can legally change gender, those seeking to transition should simply be allowed to self-declare, meaning that someone born a man could declare himself to be a woman and immediately have the right to enter spaces reserved for women. Phillips states that the cases of women in prisons being sexually assaulted by “women with penises” must give us pause for thought about whether this is wise (The Times, 22 Oct 18).

He argues that gender pay gap reporting, which aims to close the gap in pay between men and women, will become meaningless if it can become obscured by an easy fix in the paperwork, as will race-gap reporting. Phillips insists that this “makes a mockery of the struggle for equality”.

Similarly, tennis player Martina Navratilova recently came under fire on Twitter. You might have thought that someone who had campaigned for 40 years for LGBT rights and had done so much for female equality in sport would be somewhat bulletproof in this regard. Yet she was assailed by people calling her transphobic after she had tweeted, “You can’t just proclaim yourself female and then compete against women. There must be some standards.”

Doesn’t that seem like a reasonable viewpoint? That there needs to be some agreed standards? Yet Navratilova describes the response she received as “bullying tweets like incoming fire” and also criticised the “tyranny” of the trans activists who assailed her—refusing to engage and merely denouncing her (The Independent, 17 Feb 19).

It’s not just Christian pastors like me who are concerned about how these kinds of debates are being shut down. In the current climate there are not too many like Phillips or Navratilova, who are willing to ask what is really quite a reasonable question, when they know the response will be outrage.

The inconsistency issue

My main aim is simply to point out the current inconsistency in modern thought. People insist that self identifying is ok for some protected characteristics but not for others. Well, that seems arbitrary. Some of us will know and agree with people who want to redefine their “assigned” gender, or we may feel that way ourselves; yet we don’t automatically agree that people should be able to redefine their race. Perhaps it’s vice versa.

Our society has become increasingly disorientated on these issues because, when our objective, God-given identity is abandoned, then the issue of what it means to be a human is confused. Reality is being obscured so that race, gender, and age are all coming to be described as fluid. This fluidity is presented as marvellous progress. The resulting minefield of human-rights ambiguities, and questions over who is allowed to say what is bewildering. Conversation is shut down because of bullying outrage, and so most people are scared to say, “I’m not sure about this”. 

Christians recognise, from Romans 1, that our thinking as humans is fallen, and so we’re never going to be able to define rightly who we are. In the 21st century, we still exchange the truth about God for a lie. At the moment the unspoken beliefs run a bit like this:

  • There is no God… so we worship ourselves.

  • There is no eternity… so we must have what we desire now.

  • There is no truth… so I can be whatever I say that I am.

Yet self-worship rapidly leaves us empty. Nothing we create can spark satisfying praise in us like the one and only living God. In the midst of cultural confusion, we can, with relief, turn back to the clarity that God gives us in the Bible and confidently declare these truths:

  • There is a God… and in looking outside of ourselves to worship him there is wonderful joy.

  • It’s the difference between finding wonder in a Lego brick or the Eiffel Tower.

  • There is an eternity… so we can put aside what we think will provide instant gratification for what will certainly bring more substantial joy.

  • God tells us the truth… so we can know what it means to enjoy an identity that is given rather than suffer the confusion of trying to create one.

In Romans 1 the apostle Paul says that our thinking is confused, but in the rest of the letter he goes on to unfold the true gospel with wonderful clarity. Here is secure ground for confidence and resilience. Here is the genuine antidote to low self-esteem. Here is hope when we feel like misfits in our own bodies or like strangers among our friends. Here is truth which allows us to admit our weaknesses and struggles, and yet to know that we are of unimaginable value to God our Father:

"God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (5 v 8)

Matt Fuller’s book Be True to Yourself has been written to help Christians of all ages live with confidence in today’s culture. Buy it here

Matt Fuller

Matt Fuller is the Senior Minister at Christ Church, Mayfair in central London. Before working as a minister Matt was a secondary school teacher teaching history and politics.

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