Boxed in: does gender identity take away our chance at full humanity?

[for accompanying music, listening to this in the background! And, yes, it does make me laugh to have suggested it.]

traditional male and female imagesgender blending                                     transgender symbol

Some of my friends were joking with me about dressing in drag. “I’m not sure I’d have a ‘drag persona,'” I commented to one friend. He looked at me and said, “She said, with her thumbs in the belt loops of her jeans.” Because that’s unconsciously exactly how I was standing.

It’s international women’s day, and while gender equity and feminism are both incredibly important to me, it seems like an opportunity to reflect on something I’ve been chewing over for years and had some exceptional partners in this conversation over the past few months in particular.

When I was in seminary, in 2004 I remember writing a reflection for a ministry class about how unhelpful gender constructs were to me and how those gender constructs, when imposed on me, misshaped my ministry and my relationship with people in my congregation. The director of ministry, whose daughter was in college, said, “Many of my daughter’s friends refuse to check the gender box on forms.” At the time, that seemed silly and unrealistic to me. And yet, as time goes by, I see how those boxes have a lot more meaning than a simple question of plumbing.

I have found that sometimes traditional church folk are at a loss as to what to do with me, and even that my ministry has been less effective, because while I am in a denomination that has ordained women for almost as long as it has ordained men (even though some local churches were debating whether women could serve at the table as recently as thirty years ago), there has emerged the image of the male pastor (strong, visionary, authoritative, even while being kind, compassionate and fatherly in the good sense of the word) and the female pastor (kind, gentle, storyteller rather than preacher, and incredibly mothering). Some women have made it in ministry by being better at the male pastoral model, but they’re still functioning out of that binary. I don’t fit comfortably into either of those roles, though, being a little of one and a little of the other, so that even I don’t know fully where to stand (although several years ago, a congregant said to me, “Sandhya, you’re the dad in the church; where’s our mom?” When Tai Amri had been at our church a while, he decided Tai Amri was the mom, so we were no longer a broken family.)

I think I’m always going to check the female box on the forms, but this small version of the wrestling has made me aware of the deeper wrestlings of very authentic, deep thinking friends of mine. One of my friends is biologically female and in a same-gender-loving relationship. This friend of mine has found the gender binary less and less helpful as time has gone on, however, even with the theoretical nuance of lesbian or queer. Raising a pre-schooler has helped my friend develop some clarity around their identity as their child has tried to make sense of it. He knows this parent is “Mama,” but that doesn’t mean mama self-defines as female. My friend has had to parse out what is limiting, unhelpful, and even harmful about having a female identity imposed on them. And in my own little, not-as-complex way, I get that. When the only thing others have for us is boxes, and those boxes come with pre-definitions we’re not even aware of, then when we don’t fit into those boxes, it causes tension both for ourselves and for the people who only have access to those two boxes.

This turns out to be true for many straight men and women, gay and lesbian people, transgendered people, and people who self-identify as queer. We don’t realize the ways in which we’ve created normative gender roles and the options of either conforming to or defying them.  (We know I’m conforming when I wear skirts and more problematically when I ask the guy I’m dating to help me hook up my television even though I could do it myself. We know I’m defying when I talk about coming from the Dr. Phil school of pastoral care, which is not how girls offer support and comfort. But who thinks about the fact that my gender identity gets judged by the fact that I stick my thumbs into my beltloops sometimes?)

I don’t know how to navigate this stuff, and I find that it doesn’t actually bother me too much that I get called “Hon” and “Babe” occasionally when I suspect my co-pastor, Tai Amri (the mom), probably doesn’t. Because those are terms of affection, and there’s enough respect mixed in that I’m okay with it, by and large. What’s more troubling to me is the ache that I feel when someone doesn’t feel ministered to because I’m not what a female or male minister is supposed to be.

I’m so grateful to friends both referenced and unreferenced in this article who help me and call me to continue to wrestle with this issue, so that maybe the generation after the generation after ours won’t have to wrestle with this question imposed on them:

are you a boy or a girl? NO, are you?

Comments (4)

  1. Kerry

    Thanks for this, Sandhya. I have found over the years I’ve ministered that people need me to be for them so many different things. Some people like to be bossed around, henpecked almost. Others like to be treated like an equal, others like me to be like their granddaughter. It can be challenging to navigate the roles, especially when a group of people simultaneously need you to be different things. I also subscribe to the Dr. Phil model for pastoral care, though with less shouting, and don’t care for hugging people to whom I’m not related by blood or marriage. That’s hard for some people, as you’ve noted.

    I’ve also found understanding gender roles with my son and daughter to be hard. Mostly because I don’t like gender roles and I want them to feel limited in any way, especially while they are so, so young. Mostly we let them gravitate whichever way they wish. We are fortunate to have a large enough group of friends who feel the same way, and are cool with the boy wearing pink and the girl being athletic.

    I like the idea of not checking the gender role box. As someone in a field that is often dominated by males, at least in my area, it can be amusing to answer the phone at church, be asked to be connected to the pastor, reply I’m the pastor, and hear the reply, “Oh. Um.” before the sales pitch. Sometimes, it’s amusing. Other times, I think “It’s 2012. Surely I’m not the first lady pastor you’ve ever talked to.”

    I had a few words about gender roles on my blog a few weeks ago, and if you’ll forgive me for being so obnoxious as to link it here: here it is: http://andthenthereweremore.blogspot.com/2012/02/sunday-sunday.html

    Thanks again.

  2. Hope

    I am female biologically but do not find strength or comfort in most of the female stereotypical things. I don’t wear make-up. I don’t like dresses. I don’t carry a purse. I don’t like shopping. I don’t like high heels.

    I am as male as a female, straight, girl can be.

    Most of the time I do not fill in the boxes on any of that stuff. It’s all crap. Stuff to profile and categorize folks into buckets of which they do not identify.

  3. John Rich

    Thanks again for a great post Sandhya. It’s been a fascinating experience going through nursing school where the vast majority of students are female and the occupation of nursing is still pretty strongly tied to traditional gender roles for women. Nursing lectures and texts almost all use the feminine pronoun as the default. I’ve loved it!

    One of our classmates at DDH (who will remain nameless for the moment) once used the phrase “swishy man” to describe someone, and Amy latched on to that as a way to describe me. I check the box for “male” on all the forms, but I’m definitely not a “man’s man” type. I don’t particularly like sports or cars or other “manly” things. I remember at my former church I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone and connect to the “guys” by doing a series of sermons on sports. The “guys” in the church appreciated my effort, but they could tell it was not my thing. While they were clearly disappointed that their pastor would not be doing “men’s ministry” the way they envisioned it, I think they had a certain respect for me when I didn’t conform to their ideas of male gender roles and didn’t try to. It also forced them to see that if they wanted to do “men’s ministry” their way, they would need to become the ministers they were baptized to be and do it themselves (with plenty of support from their pastor, of course).

    Thanks again for the thoughtful posts.

  4. Rachel Rev

    Thanks, Sandhya. Love this thoughtful piece. This brings to mind a couple of things I have noticed in my own life. First, I have refused to let Facebook know my gender. As a result, I have never had the weight loss ads or other ads directed towards women or sports or hunting ads or others geared towards men. Instead, I get ads about Christian retreats or environmental events in Edmonton or things related to what I actually post or have in my profile (with the occasional ad for investing in gold or real estate, neither of which I have ever posted about). Second, as a new parent, I am finding it increasingly difficult to avoid the societal gender constructs. Everything is geared towards little boys or little girls instead of towards children. I know I am going to have my work cut out for me in the years ahead.

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