The Roots of Our Gender Identity Crisis

A significant part of Steve Jobs’ success was his genius at marketing. He wasn’t just able to produce great products; he also had an acute understanding of the spirit of the age, which enabled him to create a brand that appealed to our culture's deepest longings. The names of his Apple products – the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad – are striking. Jobs knew that we live in the iWorld,[1] in which everything revolves around the individual.

The roots of the profound individualism that marks our culture go back to the period of the Enlightenment 300 years ago, when intellectuals began to assert the primacy of human reason over divine revelation. Most people have never read the works of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, but their influence has gradually trickled down into our whole society so that it affects us all.

The Enlightenment began with great confidence that reason could lead us to the truth, but that optimism gradually disappeared. Even the greatest human thinkers can’t agree on fundamental issues. And so, having rejected revelation and lacking confidence in reason, our culture has now largely rejected the concept of objective truth, at least when it comes to big issues, such as meaning and morality.

So where does this leave us? With ourselves as individuals. If we think that truth is subjective, then we certainly won’t let any external authority tell us what to think or how to behave – whether it’s the government, a religion or our family. It’s up to us to draw our own conclusions and live our own lives. As the boys from Boyzone put it in one of their songs:

No matter what they tell you;
no matter what they say;
no matter what they teach you;
what you believe is true.

All this explains why autonomy is so highly valued today. The iWorld teaches me to resent any challenge to my individualism. As the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, the founding father of modern Western liberalism, wrote:

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[2]

I’m free! Free to think what I want and live as I like. Free to be me.

Authenticity is everything

That leads us to the next highly prized value today: authenticity. Above all else, we must be true to ourselves. Jonathan Grant has expressed it well:

Modern authenticity encourages us to create our own beliefs and morality, the only rule being that they must resonate with who we feel we really are. The worst thing we can do is to conform to some moral code that is imposed on us from outside – by society, our parents, the church, or whoever else. It is deemed to be self-evident that any such imposition would undermine our unique identity … The authentic self believes that personal meaning must be found within ourselves or must resonate with our one-of-a-kind personality.[3]

Grant has commented that “this culture of expressive individualism has become the moral wallpaper of the modern world.”[4] Over the last few decades the primacy of self-expression has become an unquestioned assumption of many. No one has the right to question or challenge how each individual chooses to define themselves.

Changing views of gender

It is these changes in our cultural values that have impacted the way that many view gender. If we are free to define our own identity without being bound by the old conventions, then that will include the outdated, constricting, binary, male-or-female understanding of gender. Here is how American feminist writer Camille Paglia puts it:

I consider myself neither gay nor straight, neither male nor female, neither human being nor animal.

Judith Lorber, a radical feminist, writes that she longs for the day when gender distinctives have effectively disappeared:

When we no longer ask “boy or girl?’” in order to start gendering an infant, when the information is as irrelevant as the colour of a child’s eyes … only then will men and women be socially interchangeable and really equal. And when that happens there will no longer be any need for gender at all.[5]

One slogan puts it like this: Anatomy isn’t destiny”

Change is already happening quickly. Facebook recently started allowing users to customise their gender: “male”, “female” or “other”. The “other” category listed 71 options, including bi-gender, transgender, androgynous and trans-sexual. An employee of Facebook at the time said, “We want to help users to be their true, authentic selves”. But things have moved on so quickly that Facebook’s “other” category has now been changed to “custom”, with a blank field allowing users to opt for any gender label of their choosing.

One slogan puts it like this: Anatomy isn’t destiny”. In other words, your anatomy needn’t determine your gender. And developments in medicine and surgery mean that your anatomy needn’t determine your sex. You’re free – even from nature. Not even our bodies should be allowed to restrict us in our self-definition.

Dissenting voices

Where will all this end? There was discomfort in the media when Rachel Dolezal, a civil-rights activist, was accused by her parents of falsely claiming to be black, when she was in fact white. She responded by insisting that she still “identified as black”. The case of a young Norwegian woman was also widely reported. Claiming to have the sensory powers of a cat, she said she had been born “in the wrong species”.[6]

Although most people would feel that these self-identifications have gone too far, there is still an uneasiness about challenging any individual’s chosen self-expression. There’s a deeply rooted conviction that everyone is free to define themselves as they wish, and no one has the right to question that self-definition. That explains why our culture’s knee-jerk reaction to those identifying as transgender has changed from an unquestioning “Yuk!” to an unquestioning “Yes!” That shift has been rapid in recent years.

One significant sign of the change in public attitudes is seen in the language that is used. The 1994 edition of the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders referred to cross-gender identification as “gender identity disorder”. The next edition in 2013 describes the same phenomenon as “gender dysphoria”,[7] so that the emphasis is not on gender incongruence as a disorder, but rather, on the distress associated with it.

it is now the body rather than the mind that is often treated

Approaches to treatment have also changed. Any attempt to try to “correct” a person’s gender identity so that it conforms to their biological sex is now increasingly seen as unacceptable. It is now the body rather than the mind that is often treated, with hormones or surgery being used to change the body so it conforms to a person’s sense of identity.

Some voices have been raised to question the appropriateness of these changes in medical approach. For example, a group of American paediatricians have recently spoken out against the practice of providing puberty-suspending hormonal treatment for children who believe they are the opposite sex.[8] Their statement uses strong language:

Young children are being permanently sterilised and surgically maimed under the guise of treating a condition that would otherwise resolve in over 80% of them. This is criminal.[9]

The paediatricians point out the damage that would be caused if other cases where there is incongruity between a patient's mental and physical state, such as anorexia, were treated in the same way. Surgery to “affirm” the patient's false assumption that they are overweight, perhaps by liposuction, might reduce their emotional distress, but it will not have addressed the underlying psychological problem and will result in significant physical harm, even death.

Dr Paul McHugh, formerly Psychiatrist in Chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, uses the same argument against sex-change surgery for adults. His hospital had pioneered the procedure, but then stopped offering it once evidence suggested that, although most of those who had received it were “satisfied” with the results, their psychosocial adjustments were no better than for those who hadn’t. He writes,

I concluded that to provide a surgical alteration to the body of these unfortunate people was to collaborate with a mental disorder rather than to treat it.[10]

Those who speak against the current consensus in this way can expect a backlash and are likely to be accused of “transphobia”. This term is often extended to include not just those who fear or mistreat transgender people but anyone who doesn’t fully support the idea of gender fluidity. A recent guide to transphobic hate crime defines transphobia as “intolerance of gender diversity … based around the idea that there are only two sexes – male or female, which you stay in from birth”. [11] Even Germaine Greer, an icon of the feminist movement, was accused of transphobia when she publicly declared her view that a transgender person who has gone through male-to-female surgery isn’t really female, but is still a man with a different kind of body. As a result she was banned from various student meetings around the UK.

The world’s “gospel” vs the real gospel

How do we explain the extreme reaction against those who dare to raise their heads above the parapet and question any aspect of the new transgender consensus? The answer is surely that this debate goes far deeper than scientific and medical arguments. It involves a clash of worldviews. We may have rejected the concept of objective truth as a culture, but we still expect everyone to hold to certain fundamental convictions – and one of them is the absolute right of each individual to define themselves as they wish. Any perceived challenge to that right is regarded as heresy and is strongly resisted, no matter what it’s based on.

this debate goes far deeper than scientific and medical arguments. It involves a clash of worldviews

Behind the different points of view are not only different worldviews but different gospels: different understandings of what leads to freedom and fulfilment. The “gospel” story which the world tells us goes something like this:

For years our spirits have been suffocated by restrictive traditions and morality. But now we must have the courage to follow our own light. We must resist anyone or anything that stands in our way. We must discover the hero inside ourselves and enter into the freedom that comes when we become who we really are.[12]

What does Christianity have to say in response to this? Sadly, so often all we’ve been heard to say is the repetition of a set of laws – “Do this!” “Don’t do that!” – which sound like the very opposite of good news. But the Bible tells a different story of oppression, liberation and freedom – a true story. It speaks of a God who made us and loves us, and has rescued us and given us a glorious future. It tells us we’re not alone in the universe. We’re not lost. We don’t desperately have to try and discover who we are and fight for who we are – it’s a wonderful given. Sadly, that identity that we’ve been given at creation has been flawed and broken because of our sin, but God has committed to putting it right and we can live today as part of a wonderful story. Jesus has come already. He’s died, he’s risen, he’s sent his Spirit and made possible the transformation that we all need as broken people. All of us are broken physically, broken psychologically, broken in our hearts – but if we have trusted in Christ, God has begun that transformation in us, which will continue until completion, when at last we’ll be put back together – body and soul perfectly integrated for the glory of God.

In the Bible’s story, we are not the hero; God is. And wonderfully, as we find our place within his story, we can discover our real identity, as well as true freedom and lasting fulfilment.


[1] This term comes from Dale Kuehne’s excellent book Sex and the iWorld (Grand Rapids Mich.: Baker Academic 2009)
[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis: Hackett 1979), p. 9
[3] Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex (Grand Rapids MI: Brazos Press 2015), p. 30
[4] Grant, p. 34
[5] Quoted in Are we all “omnigender” now? by Sharon James
[6] Quoted in Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing, (London: IVP, forthcoming publication).
[7] Christian Medical Fellowship File 59, 2016. Gender Dysphoria, p. 2-3. Downloadable from
[8] This treatment has been available in the UK on the National Health Service (NHS) since 2014.
[9]  American College of Pediatricians, Normalizing Gender Dysphoria is Dangerous and Unethical, 3 August 2016
[10] Paul McHugh, Surgical sex: Why we stopped doing sex change operations. Studies of the outcomes for those who have received sex-reassignment surgery published since he wrote that article have not led him to change his mind. See Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh, p. 108-113
[11] James, p. 3, quoting a transphobia fact sheet from Gallup.
[12] Based on a passage in Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing, (IVP, London).

This article is adapted from Transgender by Vaughan Roberts (The Good Book Company, 2016), available here. Read the review here.