I was raised with a Biblical understanding of gender:
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:27-28
(Also there’s the idea of humans ruling over all other creatures, but that’s something I’d have to cover another day).
In this verse, there is the distinction of male and female. This is a theme that is carried throughout the Bible, and many verses reinforce the distinct roles of men and women (1 Peter 3:7, Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Corinthians 11:3, the Proverbs 31 woman, to name a few). Having male parts makes you a man, with all the ideas about manliness thrust upon you. Having female parts makes you a woman. Luckily, I wasn’t in a Quiverfull family (even more extreme in their understanding of the roles of men and women, from what I understand), and my parents sent us to public school and expected all their children to go to college. But, my mom was still a stay-at-home mom and my dad was the provider. My mom cooked and cleaned; my dad fixed things. My dad expected his daughters to be modest and humble. I grew up never even considering the existence of a gender-continuum that could include distinction between the sex you were born with and the gender you identify with.
When I learned that you could have the major “gender studies,” I simply had no idea what it is that you would be studying. I just dismissed the idea as one that wasn’t needed – there were men, and there were women, and it’s all very simple. So I thought. I think I first heard about transgender people in college, when had an acquaintance who was growing out his hair and, after a few months, asking people to start calling her Laura. I just didn’t know how to comprehend this information.
The more I learn about the topic, the more I question my limited view of gender. Most mammals (I think) are divided into male and female (however, the roles of male and female animals in different species vary greatly). But, many other species on this wonderful planet are NOT divided into strict male vs. female. For example, there are many fish that can change sex as needed (“Clownfish, wrasses, moray eels, gobies and other fish species are known to change sex, including reproductive functions.” according to Wikipedia). There are many species that reproduce asexually. It’s not always so black and white. Looking at the evolutionary history of life gives insight into how sexual reproduction came about – it’s not because of a god-given assignment, but because sharing genetic information is important for survival of the genes.
I think the idea of the binary, distinct, male vs. female nature of human gender is actually harmful to men and women and anyone in between.
For me, as a female, I saw a lot of “feminine” characteristics (overly-emotional, irrational, dependent) as weak and undesirable, things that men put up with because they loved women’s bodies. I saw myself as competing with others for male attention and admiration, because this was how I would feel important. I swallowed the errant idea that men determine my worth as a woman, and I wanted to be the best because I’m a bit of a perfectionist… ok, a lot of a perfectionist. I’m still struggling to erase the effects of this lie on my thinking and my view of myself. I compare myself to other women, especially physically. I went through some very painful relationships trying to satisfy my craving for male attention to help me prove my own worth.
But, as an atheist, I don’t have to cling to the idea of male and female being god-sanctioned states of being. I can accept that, while biological sex is a little more straight-forward, gender is not so clear-cut. I can determine my own ideas about what it means to be a woman and, more importantly, to just be me and find my own worth. I know there’s no inherent meaning in life and no worth outside of what we create. So, I create my own worth as a human, not as a woman trapped in what it means to be a woman in evangelical Christianity. And I can value others as humans, not for their male or femaleness especially, but for their own unique personalities.