Neither Male nor Female: Understanding the Complexities of Sex and Gender

Virginia Ramey Mollencott

As a child and a young woman, I was taught that if I wanted to please God and humanity, my place was secondary and my role supportive.There was no question that the binary gender paradigm of two opposite sexes was the proper context—indeed, the only context within which to think and live ethically.

Even when I was arguing that the Bible supports male-female equality in the 1977 edition of my Women, Men, and the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), I was unable to lift myself free of the confines of gender duality. There, and in my book about biblical imagery of God as female, The Divine Feminine (New York: Crossroad, 1983), I argued that human language about God needs feminine as well as masculine analogies because God, being spirit, is neither masculine nor feminine and every human being is both. That latter phrase, and also my encouragement of nature analogies for God, pointed toward liberation from the cognitive prison of either-or, a male versus female dualism. However, a gender paradigm shift had certainly not occurred to me. This book is my attempt to move beyond the binary gender construct in order to set forth a new gender paradigm, which seeks to include and offer liberation to everyone who has been oppressed by the old model.

Thanks to a remark by Mary McClintock Fulkerson1 of Duke Divinity School, I began to think that perhaps the baptismal formula recorded in Galatians 3:28 could and should be taken literally: in Christ “no male and female.” Previously, I had taken “no male and female” to mean only that the social and political advantages of being male in patriarchal cultures were to be shared equitably with females within the New Creation. But Professor Fulkerson jarred me into realizing that all the people whose bodily experience is marginalized or erased by gender and orientational dualities would be represented if only the statement were interpreted literally.

It’s worth noticing that the three statements in Galatians 3:28 about the New Creation’s transcendence of race/ethnicity, class, and gender are not precisely parallel in the Greek text. This lack of parallelism is reflected in the New Revised Standard Version translation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” If there is any meaning to be found in that grammatical shift from “or” to “and,” what might it be? Does it reflect a belief that women and men are so necessary to one another that “or” cannot be spoken, because without either there could be no humankind, a fact Paul emphasized in I Corinthians 11:11-12? And does it point toward a time when instead of separate gender obligations, both physical maleness-femaleness and masculine-feminine social roles will be recognized as a continuum on which individuals may locate themselves comfortably and without fear of reprisal? At any rate, I concur with Professor Fulkerson that “it is time to read Galatians 3:28 with a new literalness, admitting that we are all performing our sex/gender.”

The Gender Crisis

Western society is currently involved in a crisis of gender definition. Throughout all the centuries of heteropatriarchy, the concept of two opposite sexes has served as a boundary to hold in place the established patterns of power. The binary gender construct has dictated that real males must be naturally drawn to those attitudes, behaviors, and roles any given society considers “masculine,” including sexual attraction to females only. And real females must be naturally drawn to those attitudes, behaviors, and roles any given society considers “feminine,” including sexual attraction to males only. Any person who deviates from these standards is a gender transgressor, outside the pale of genuine humanity, undeserving of full human consideration. The binary gender construct is assumed to be The Way Things Ought to Bethe order of creation, the will of God, unchangeable and beyond question.

So what’s wrong with the time-honored concept that men are men and women are women and viva la difference? Plenty.

In the first place, the binary gender construct ignores or contradicts factual reality. Many heterosexual men are not drawn to “masculine” attitudes, behaviors, and roles; and many heterosexual women are not drawn to “feminine” behaviors, attitudes, and roles. Bisexual and homosexual women and men are not attracted exclusively to the “opposite” sex.

I can now acknowledge that to the degree I feel myself to be a masculine woman, I am transgendered. Not transsexual. I feel myself to be female all right, but masculine at the same time, so that dresses and skirts feel rather ridiculous—and this despite the fact that as a child I was not allowed to wear overalls, shorts, or pants. I played with the boys a great deal, and I defended my older brother with my fists, but always I was wearing a skirt. One of the greatest benefits of coming out publicly as lesbian was that I could go through my closets and give away all my dresses and skirts except for a few Gertrude Steinish floor-length skirts that somehow seemed less of an affront to my nature.

As many as four percent of all births are intersexual—babies with indeterminate genitals or with both male and female genitals, sometimes internal and difficult to discover.2 Some people with apparently normal male bodies sense themselves to be female; some people with female bodies sense themselves to be male; and these people are willing to cross-dress permanently and use hormonal and/or surgical means to become or “pass” as the gender they feel themselves to be. Some people sense that they are heterosexual but “two-spirited” or “bigendered,” so they cross-dress periodically in order to express all aspects of their nature. And some “two-spirited” people are homosexual or bisexual. Some people look like “normal” males or females but are chromosomally different from the statistical norm of XX for females and XY for males. Differences in hormone levels and in how the cells of some newborns have resisted or responded to hormones prenatally can also be factors in what is often called gender ambiguity. Because common speech often confuses biological categories with gender-assignment, gender-identity, and gender-expression, enormous diversity is possible. I do not doubt that there are people who would read through this paragraph and still not find an adequate description of themselves; for their sake, I will add a category of “otherwise.” In the face of so much diversity, it is no wonder that the binary gender paradigm is in the process of collapse.

In the second place, societies vary radically in their understandings of what constitutes “masculinity” and “femininity” (that is, in their gender roles). As I pointed out in Women, Men, and the Bible, one multicultural study found that in 12 societies, men carry the heavy burdens, but in 57 societies, women do; in 158 societies, women do the cooking, but in 5 societies, men do; in 95 societies, the making and repairing of clothes is women’s work; but in 12 societies, men do it; in 14 societies, women build the houses, but in 86 societies men do the building.3 And anthropologist Margaret Mead reported finding that in one New Guinea tribe, the ideal temperament for both males and females was gentleness; in a second tribe, it was aggressiveness; and in a third tribe, the ideal for males was dependence and affectionate sensitivity, while the ideal for females was aggressive dominance.4 Such variations are enough to prove that there is no universally uniform innate “masculinity” and “femininity” and, therefore, that those concepts neither follow any universal natural law nor constitute the will of God.

In the third place, the social construction of gender has not been even-handed about the assignment of roles and rewards. We westerners tend to think hierarchically, and when there are dualities we prefer one over the other: thin rather than fat, young rather than old, light rather than dark, heterosexual rather than homosexual. Gender is no exception. Although most of our contemporaries might deny preferring boys to girls, males to females, the traditional assignment of males to the more powerful roles of the public sphere and females to the more supportive roles of the private sphere has brought with it a host of inequities. Money, prestige, influence, and honor are accorded to those who function publicly; but domestic work is hardly respected as work, let alone financially rewarded. No one could possibly cram into one book the tremendous research documenting gender injustice. But such injustice renders urgent the need for a new gender pluralism, a non-hierarchical omnigender paradigm.

What I have learned from my most recent studies is that gender normality is a myth as long as it is forced to locate itself within a binary paradigm that fits very few members of the human race. I am not the only person who limited, shrank, and truncated aspects of myself in an attempt to fit that paradigm. Millions have done the same; and some have killed themselves or been murdered because of their inability to pass gender muster. Many transgender youngsters have run away from home or been evicted by their parents, have lived on the streets and been used by predatory adults, and have become HIV positive. Others have been institutionalized for no other reason than their inability to satisfy society’s gender expectations.

So much pain. So much waste of human potential. It cannot continue!

What society has constructed, society can also deconstruct and reconstruct. The goal is worthwhile: to learn from the facts of human sexuality and genderedness and to develop attitudes that match those facts and, thus, alleviate human pain. Although I have written books arguing the human equality of females and males and homosexuals and heterosexuals, I now understand that no matter how liberationist the context may be, as long as these terms are handled in a binary fashion, they continue to reinforce the dominant gender paradigm. This book is my attempt to break out of a system that has worked only by silencing the outcries of millions and to move instead toward a new, omnigender paradigm.

  1. Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “Gender—Being It or Doing It? The Church, Homosexuality, and the Politics of Identity,” Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gary David Comstock and Susan E. Henking (New York: Continuum, 1997), 189, 199.

  2. Martine Aliana Rothblatt, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (New York: Crown, 1995), 9.

  3. See discussion in Virginia Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 62. The study cited was reported by Roy G. D’Andrade, “Sex Differences and Cultural Institutions,” in The Development of Sex Differences, ed. Eleanor Maccoby (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966), 174-204. In The Myths of Gender (New York: Basic Books, 1992), Anne Fausto-Sterling comments that “the division of labor by sex embodies a seeming contradiction: it is a human universal but it has no universal meaning. Instead each culture has its own particular division of labor by sex… and attaches to it its own set of interpretations… It seems then that we can extract meaning only by examining that division in a particular social setting… . There is no single undisputed claim about universal behavior (sexual or otherwise), The notion of a naked human essence is meaningless because human behavior acquires significance only in a particular social context” (198).

  4. Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York: Morrow Quill, 1935). 

Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott taught college literature and writing for 44 years and is now Professor Emeritus at the William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Dr. Mollenkott served as stylistic consultant for the New International Version of the Bible and was a member of the National Council of Churches’ Inclusive Language Lectionary Committee. The text above is an excerpt from her twelfth book, Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach (Pilgrim Press, 2001), which has been warmly welcomed by pastoral counselors, theologians, psychologists, and GLBT people of various religious backgrounds as well as by people working for sexual and gender justice.