This past week’s New York Times education supplement carried an article on gender politics in university, specifically on what is being called the third gender, an ambiguous place that is not male or female. The author presents the identity conundrum: “For years, writers and academics have argued that gender identity is not a male/female binary but a continuum along which any individual may fall, depending on a variety of factors, including anatomy, chromosomes, hormones and feelings. But the dichotomy is so deeply embedded in our culture that even the most radical activists had been focused mainly on expanding the definitions of the two pre-existing categories.”
For those who belittle this conversation and think it is irrelevant, visit Facebook and have a look at the gender terms you can choose to describe yourself. As of today, there are 58 of them. Most of us are used to going to the doctor’s office and checking off male or female in the category of gender. But those forms are fast changing and adapting to a different reality. On updated forms “sex” today refers to the biological formation of chromosomes, hormones, reproductive capacity, gonads and external anatomy. “Gender” refers to the way one feels about one’s personal sense of masculinity or femininity. Gender activists will make the case that there are many choices on that spectrum. What many of us only considered a one-box choice suddenly became a line that we marked somewhere that seemed to apply to our small and specific sense of self in the wider universe.
This is not a new conversation. The Talmud discusses several legal cases involving those with both sexual organs and those with unclear biological gender features. These terms, however, are not about gender feelings but about scientific categorization for the sake of determining particular Jewish responsibilities within the law. The biblical verse above gets to the more subjective issues of gender – this new sliding scale of self-identity – because it talks about external coverings and behaviors apart from biological destiny.
Medieval commentators range in their understanding of what is prohibited when it comes to cross-dressing. Most believe that the problem is not in wearing clothing of the opposite sex but in doing so in order to disguise oneself for the purpose of sexual co-mingling or promiscuity. A man dresses like a woman in order to gain entrance into a women’s locker room. The problem is the lie and the behaviors that follow from this lie. It’s not the clothes. Others argue that the verse points to something more subtle, a behavior associated with pagan rites and magic or some kind of sexual deviance. Some translate “kli gever” not as male clothing but as male objects and suggest that this prohibits a woman from carrying a gun, for example. We’ve moved far afield, from clothing to the combat zone. This would also apply in the reverse. Behaviors and implements associated with women – like make-up – are forbidden to men.
We are on a pretty slippery slope here because as we know, over time, men stopped wearing earrings (then started again) and long tunics and women started wearing business suits. Fashions change. Perhaps this is why many medieval writers saw this verse in terms of an illicit behavior rather than a superficial matter of covering.
One could say that the verse itself acknowledges that gender identity can easily become blurred and, therefore, must be affirmed by engaging in practices and dress that cement one’s identity. The verse is strong. God abhors these behaviors. How do we explain this judgmental and harsh language?
Basic identity questions can force us into states of such great confusion that they become destabilizing. We don’t know who we are, and we don’t see ourselves fitting in with the accepted categories we’ve been offered. We don’t find it easy to check off a box. One of the reasons for the multiplicity of gender terms now is a result of people failing to find any one category as sufficiently descriptive of who they are and what they feel about themselves.
I think God was on to something in terms as asking us to make that choice and affirm it in dress and behavior. When you are unsure of who you are it can be excruciatingly painful to form relationships with others, with God and arguably - most importantly - with self. Maybe it’s too generous a reading, but I think what God detests is our failure to name ourselves. It can lead to self-hate and hate of others.
This may be too modern a reading for some or not modern enough for others. Either way, it’s time to take the conversation on religion and gender identity seriously. It’s an extremely hard conversation. That doesn’t mean we can avoid it.