Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Gender identity, sexual orientation and ‘which pronoun do you prefer today?’

The widely circulated Associated Press article, “‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at U.S. colleges” provides the opportunity for me to address a topic that has been sitting in my “write about this” folder for several weeks.

During the Covenant Network’s “Marriage Matters” national conference at the end of October, I attended a workshop led by a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who is also a transgender person. Alex McNeill now heads up the More Light Presbyterians nationwide. McNeill was born biologically female but has transitioned to a male identity. He and his wife live in the Washington D.C. area.

“There is a plurality of gender expression but self-named gender identity is where the power is,” McNeill declared in the workshop entitled “Connecting the Dots: Gender, Identity and Sexual Orientation.”

It opened with the invitation to “introduce yourself with the pronoun you prefer to help us honor you.” McNeill led off by saying, “I’m a transgender person, and when I was in transition it wasn’t always clear that I preferred to be referred to with male pronouns.”

When it came around to me I introduced myself as a female “and I prefer female pronouns.” It sounded strange when I said it then, and it still sounds strange today.

McNeill acknowledged that reality for the room in saying that “the goal is to build solidarity by learning to think in such a way that is not where you are.”

Workshops participants were expected to follow a list of stated “covenants,” including:

  • “Valuing people in the nuances of their experience which can be wildly infinite vs. limiting people to clearly delineated definitions or boxes,”
  • “Being hospitable by inviting questions but not lurid, invasive or inappropriate,”
  • “Being vulnerable by taking risks while maintaining self-care, knowing your own comfortable limits.”

McNeill then turned to the graphic (at right) that would provide the basis of conversation.

Covenant Network event 526

McNeill described this as “a gender binary,” straight line thinking about a subject that he and others no longer see as this straight forward.

He said that “at the moment of birth people ask if it’s a boy or a girl.” McNeill contended that is unjust as it suggests that “personhood doesn’t get established until one of these two boxes is checked.”

McNeill said, “If we check the ‘girl’ box then cultural expectation is that her sex would be female and gender identity would be as a woman, her gender expression would be feminine (makeup, attire, hairstyle), and she would be attracted to males.”

Similarly, he said, “If we check the ‘boy’ box, cultural expectation is that his sex would be male, gender identity as a man, gender expression would be masculine, and he would be attracted to females.”

McNeill then said, “This system is not working for everybody. These little boxes don’t fit for everyone.”

Covenant Network event 528And so, McNeill contended, we need to do away with the straight line thinking and replace it with thinking along an array of continua.

Here, McNeill began to define several controversial terms.

Noting that “even biological sex is not as fixed as you might have thought,” and that “the choice made at birth by doctors and parents may or may not align with the person down the continuum over time,” McNeill told attendees that the term “intersex” is used to describe “a person born with ambiguous genitalia, missing chromosomes and hormonal proportions.”

On the gender identity spectrum, he identified those who see themselves as “Genderqueer.” McNeill noted that “queer is a term that has had a troubled history. Some folks prefer the term queer for those who don’t feel strictly one or the other on the gender identity continuum.”

I note here that gender fluidity is a likewise “new” term that is used to describe a person who fluctuates over time or even day to day on the gender expression spectrum.

Another term used here is androgynous. McNeill said, “This is where the conversation about pronoun preference is helpful.  To preserve the ambiguity, some prefer the pronoun ‘they.’”

They to describe an individual, you ask? Yes. McNeill illustrated, “Barbara went to the store and they shopped for cosmetics.”

Finally arriving at the bottom line issue of attraction, McNeill noted that there are “folks at all points along the continuum.” Adding that the terms “bisexual and queer are used here as well.”

Covenant Network event 530McNeill then addressed his own experience as a transgender person. Adding the word “Transgender” to the top of the chart and working his way down and across the page, McNeill explained that “Transgender … can start anywhere on the sex spectrum.” Then scrolling down to the last spectrum (“Attracted to”) he said, “and there’s no set answer to the attracted to piece” for a transgender person. Then he pointed to the “Gender Identity” line on the screen and said, “but the crossing over to the gender identity that is not historically associated with one’s anatomical sex is the heart of the matter.”

What he was saying is that a transgender person may start out as anatomically male or female and their transgenderism has nothing to do with whether or not they are attracted to men or women. What’s at issue is their desire to “cross over” from the gender identity historically aligned with the body in which they were born — and that is accomplished by changing their anatomy.

He said that “How we express our inner-sense of what it means to be male or female is an evolution of understanding.”

When asked about other terms McNeill noted that “the term transvestite has been used negatively. But he distinguished transvestitism from transgenderism, saying, “It is less about gender identity and more about expression, and it is impermanent.” He then noted that “all of these terms have evolved over time.”

That evolution of the meaning of terms over time has more than just the LGBTQQIAAP community in need of a workshop. Those of us who seek to engage in meaningful conversation now need a lexicon.

To this point, McNeill concluded, “Cultural competency is one thing, earning the right to use the term in a way that is understood as respectful is another.”

Within the PCUSA world of LGBT (and sometimes Q) advocacy there is a range of use and even of meaning attached to the letters in the acronym. The challenge remains to report accurately without offense when the subject matter is both deeply personal and profoundly controversial.

McNeill asked, “Who gets to define these terms, feminine and masculine?”, adding that “It’s all a very subjective reality.”

Therein may well lie the proverbial rub. Some participants in both our denominational and cultural conversations about identity, marriage and moral practice view all reality as subjective, others view all reality as subject to objective Truth. One perspective sees identity as fluid, while the other sees identity fixed redemptively in a God who will not be moved. One worldview sees moral practice as relative to present proclivities and personal feelings, while the other views moral practice as a reflection or derivative of a perfectly Holy God. Each set of ideas has consequences, and each charts a path for the Church and the world. But these paths are significantly parted, and they further diverge every day.


About the author: Carmen Fowler LaBerge

Carmen Fowler LaBerge heads the ministry of the Presbyterian Lay Committee as its President and Executive Editor of its publications, including The Layman.


  1. Rev. Dr. Thomas Peavy says:

    When I entered the mental health professions in the early 1970′s there was a diagnostic identity in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Homosexual behavior under the category of sexual perversions and there were individuals in mental institutions who had that as a primary diagnosis. Over time the diagnostic categories in the DSM changed and eventually the diagnnosis of homosexuality was removed form the manual. The question about the behavior changing was not addressed, the behavior remained, however, society’s accepting of the behavior did. We have now progressed to a place where behavior is being redefined and the language to justify the behavior is being developed and cultivated by those who want to establish a different understanding of natural law. The effort to combine and confuse science, heredity, genetics, choice, culture, norms, mores, practices and scripture is the witches brew concocted to disguise a behavior which has been culturally and religiously defined as outside the norm in most cultures for centuries. Rather than debate the effect of the behavior the proponents choose to set up the straw man and accuse those who identify the behavior and problems it presents as intollerant, bigoted, mean spirited, ignorant, angry and any other parajotive that can vilify those who disagree with their agenda. Doing this paints the opposition to their agenda as less understanding, accepting and Christian. It is also designed to silence the debate in the arena of ideas and promote the notion that those not agreeing with their point of view are divisive and unwilling to accommodate the view of others. This ploy has been the tool of despots, authoritians, chalartains and culitvators of chaos for centuries. The hope is that the opposition will be bullied into silence for fear of being maligned or labeled in a way that would destroy the individual or the opposition. The stage is set for this in the PCUSA. Will those who oppose stand and speak in the debate or will the secular progressives impose their agenda which includes the acceptance of behavior which is clearly outside the religious and societal norm. I see it as an issue of behavior and as such people can choose to behave in acceptable or non acceptable ways in society. I don’t believe one can “blame” God for their gender or for their choices related to that role in society.

  2. James Phoenix says:

    The question of sex, gender, gender identity and gender expression is a difficult one, and I commend you on how effectively you presented Alex McNeill’s information. It demonstrates that you have made the effort to understand the complexities here, which is more than Lee Duigon seems willing or able to do. Yet you speak of “objective Truth” as a counterpoint to “subjective reality.” What is the “objective Truth” as it regards people of faith like Alex McNeill, and other transgender persons? Who defines it? You? On what authority? Are you going to cite Scripture on the questions of gender identity and intersex persons? I can’t believe you will find anything. The fact is, sexuality is much more fluid than you may want to believe. It is unique to the individual — unique, like our DNA and fingerprints. It is part of the wonder of Creation that God made each of us unique — and we are still discovering the, yes, subjective, or individual, truth of that. Alex McNeill is a living example of a person of faith living into the truth of his identity. To dismiss Alex’s witness as “present proclivities and personal feelings” is an affront not only to him, but to your own intelligence. Surely you know better. It would be simpler, yes, if “objective Truth” truly existed, if all of us were born male or female with the genitalia to match, if Alex’s “personal feelings” were your personal feelings as well, if all of us were born heterosexual and stayed that way. But that is simply not the case. We can resist that reality, and try to force people like Alex into our neat and narrow categories, or we can celebrate and continue to explore the wonder of it all, and support Alex on his — HIS — journey. That, I believe, is the choice we face. Alex is the child of a “perfectly Holy God,” too — that God does not belong to you — and Alex is a courageous witness to our Holy God calling us to love more deeply and more broadly than we ever imagined.

    • drew smith says:

      Thanks for your willingness to join in this conversation. I hear from you the highest value being one’s individual journey. Is that indeed the case? Is that the highest value – one’s journey to pursue the unique you you were created to be? Why is that the highest value? If it isn’t then what is the highest value of life?

      Second question – on this journey are there limits? Or is the journey to break through these imposed limits to pursue personal desire and longing?

      Thanks again for your willingness to be present in this conversation.

  3. Lee Duigon says:

    This lost soul is no more a “he” than you are. She is an intensely perverted woman. To use the male pronoun here is to play along with this damnable game.

  4. Scott Vincelette says:

    The final paragraph sums this up perfectly. I just want to repeat it for emphasis:

    “Some participants in both our denominational and cultural conversations about identity, marriage and moral practice view all reality as subjective, others view all reality as subject to objective Truth. One perspective sees identity as fluid, while the other sees identity fixed redemptively in a God who will not be moved. One worldview sees moral practice as relative to present proclivities and personal feelings, while the other views moral practice as a reflection or derivative of a perfectly Holy God. Each set of ideas has consequences, and each charts a path for the Church and the world. But these paths are significantly parted, and they further diverge every day.”

  5. John Pehrson says:

    Human sexuality is a very complex and complicated issue. Sometimes I have wondered if God was entirely serious in creating two sexes. It has sure given humanity something to fight about as people try to figure it all out..
    It’s well known that some babies have been born with a combination of male and female sex organs and doctors would do their best to “assign” a sexual identity. Sadly, there have been times they likely assigned the wrong identity, hence, some of the struggles people have surrounding a gender identity. Now, the more we learn about genetics the more gender issues there are. It’s a field I won’t pretend to understand.
    Still, God’s never-changing Word for our ever-changing world can inform us on how to care for people caught in the confusion of a personal gender identity by witnessing to the truth that God doesn’t make junk and everyone has the right to be accepted, cared for, and treated with respect. What is more, it always needs to be stated that acceptance does not mean endorsement.

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