Binary “Gender Ideology” Refuted: The Complexities of Gender

Ever since the 2014 Family Synod, some Catholic bishops (and Pope Francis himself) have expressed criticism of what they refer to as “gender ideology”, by which they seem to mean gender theory. Gender theory, however, is not by any stretch an “ideology”, but a sound academic attempt to understand the complexities of gender as encountered in the real world. The only “ideology” I’m aware of about gender, is that espoused in Vatican doctrine, which reduces everything to a simplistic binary; everyone is either male or female, with distinctive roles appropriate to each; and that our primary social purpose is to find a suitable mate of the opposite gender, marry, and produce offspring. This is simplistic, patent nonsense, which should be obvious to anyone who simply observes the reality outside the lens of what is fondly believed to be the “traditional” family structure. There are many societies around the world in which traditional family structures recognized more than two genders. The hijra of South Asia are one example of a socially recognised third gender, now being recognised in government documents in some countries. Some Native American societies recognized even more than three genders.

The complexity of gender (graphic from the Catholic transgender)

The problems don’t end with trying to classify the number of genders that exist. There are many others. Bishops are quite correct to point out, as some have done, that every society associates specific roles with each gender – but these are not uniform. Europeans, for instance, associate dairy work as women’s work (“dairymaid”) – but in much of Africa, anything to do with cattle is very definitely men’s work. There are also variations in how the gender and role are associated in a particular individual. Europeans typically identify a person’s gender by the genital morphology, and then apply the appropriate gender role. The Native Americans traditionally did it the other way around – waited until the child was old enough to adopt a gender role, and then applied the associated gender. This could easily result in a child with female genitals but a male role, being identified as male. In many pre-colonial African societies, females with sufficient wealth to support a family, were able to become female “husbands”, and take wives.

Applying gender on the basis of external genitals has even more problems, as these do not always align as expected with many other aspects of physical sex – chromosomes, for example, or internal morphology.

The complexities go on, and on. Annamagdalena4xt at the Catholic transgender has a superb new series in which these complexities are unravelled.  This should be compulsory reading for anyone remotely interested in understanding or pontificating on the realities of gender and sexuality. That includes Catholic prelates and moral theologians, but as she makes clear in her opening post, “What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible“, oversimplification of the issues is not confined to the essentialists, who see gender only in terms of biological sex. There are also problems with the constructionist view, which asserts that gender is entirely a matter of social construction, and has nothing to do with biology. She then goes through a series of posts, breaking down the problems from a number of different perspectives, all supported with illustrative diagrams, and anecdotal examples from real – life.

In her final post, she ends with a personal appeal, for greater understanding, and less dogmatism, from those on all sides (and yes, that’s “ALL” sides: here too, there’s no simple divide between essentialists and constructivists). She has a specific message and appeal to each of:

fellow feminists.


gender ideologues.

gender essentialists

fellow transsexuals

transsexual women

transgender activists

and finally,

To all of you

PLEEEEEEASE, stop the name-calling! Call a cease-fire and talk. You all have deep personal stakes in the “gender war,” but that gives you all the more reason to stop firing bullets and start encompassing gender experiences with your hearts. We need some sanity in these gender conversations so we can stop talking about disconnected ideologies and start talking about people. If our ideologies eclipse the concrete experiences of individual people, then what’s the purpose in believing them except to be deliberately exclusive, self-righteous, and cruel? My hope is that any discourse on gender is aimed at truth – namely, to actually get to the bottom of the issues we face, not to pet our own egos.

If you take anything from this series on What is Gender?, let it be how humble we need to be in the face of such complex diversity and diverse complexity

(emphasis added)

To which I add, “Amen, Amen”.

Read the full series:

What is gender? OR Why the term is both meaningless and indispensible,

What is gender? Part 2: Gender as determined sex

What is gender? Part 3: Gender as subconscious sex

What is gender? Part 4: Gender as social grouping

What is gender? Part 5: Gender as behavior

What is gender? Part 6: Gender as role

What is Gender? Part 7: A Personal Plea for Gender Sanity

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