The “Genderqueer God” and the Affirmation of Identity

Here in Atlanta, it’s Pride weekend, where LGBTIQ (and imagine A as well in a few cases) people and their allies celebrate the freedom to define themselves and their identity. While walking in Midtown this Friday, I passed St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. They had an electronic sign in the front posting messages about services as well as affirming messages such as “you are a child of God and you are welcome here.”  One message gave me pause, and it was this:

Sign reading

My personal theology is evolving, but is fairly liberal. I am pretty comfortable with “live and let live” with respect to people’s personal identities, and am staunchly in favor of civil liberties for all people regardless of orientation or identity. However, this made me angry to read in a way that I didn’t expect. Intuitively, it felt like a willful misinterpretation of Christian beliefs as stated in the Bible. Since I consider myself fairly liberally-minded, having what I viewed as a conservative reaction bothered me. I decided to do some research and reflection rather than assuming that the statement was wrong or accepting it on its face.

First, we should define the term “genderqueer”. Wikipedia defines it as:

“a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.”

For those just joining the bleeding edge of identity concepts, cisnormativity refers to the bias toward a understanding of the world where men identify only as men and women identify only as women.

Given this definition, at first, the statement sounds a little less crazy. God is not defined as male or female and does not conform to the gender binary. We refer to God as male because we grew up in (and the books of the Bible were all written in the context of) a patriarchal society. I actually would rather refer to God using the pronoun “it”, but that word is loaded with problematic nuance that doesn’t work in English. Does this mean that we can refer to God, then, as “genderqueer” and have that be as accurate as saying “God is not male or female”? I’ll get to that in a minute.

The verse referred to in the image, is Deuteronomy 4:16, which reads:

“beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female”

I’m not sure what this verse has to do with the assertion that God is genderqueer. As far as I can tell, this is a restatement of “don’t make graven images”, which is part of God’s drawing of a distinction between the Hebrews and the other people of the area, who worshipped multiple gods and viewed idols as focal points for worship. I get that it’s asserting that God’s likeness can’t be captured as male or female, but it goes on in the next verse to say you can’t use animals either. So let’s look at a verse that has some more relevance; Genesis 1:27:

“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”

So if man and woman are both created in the image of God, this would mean that the image of God encompasses both masculinity and femininity. More evidence that God does not conform to the gender binary. So we ask again, does this make God “genderqueer”?

I’m not a minister, and not even particularly well read on theology and religion, so I welcome thoughtful insight and counterpoints from pastors and ministers out there on this. However, one key theological tenet that I have taken to heart is that one cannot submit the Creator of the entire universe to the Creation that was made. When we define God as an old white man (or even just as a man), we are reducing God to conform to the rules of that creation. However, by the same token, if we try to box God into any characteristic of human identity, we’re doing the same thing; conforming God to the creation made by God.

God does not have a gender; God created gender, and created each person that subscribes to a particular gender identity as well. The irony of using that part of Deuteronomy to justify the assertion that God has a particular gender identity that is affirming to the non-standard binary is that in making that assertion, we are creating a different kind of “graven image”. We are trying to fit God into our understanding of how things should be so that we can comprehend, and be more comfortable, and have God accept us.

This is where the beauty of the Christian understanding of grace comes in. Those who believe in this believe that God created each of us the way we are, complete with our strengths and weaknesses. We don’t need to reduce God to make God accept us where we are today. Now, once we take God’s proverbially outstretched hand, Christians differ on what outworkings there may be on that based on your gender identity and sexual orientation. Some believe that having a non-standard identity or orientation means that you must live with it without changing it or acting on it. Others believe that there are paths for everyone to experience the fullness of earthly love, partnership, and self-definition in a way that is not offensive to God and in line with each person’s identity and orientation. Picking a side there is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Ultimately, though, if our affirmation is in an acceptance of the grace outlined in the Gospel, we don’t need a God that looks like us and behaves like us to be validated and affirmed.

Until We’re All Free

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of years about what constitutes racial reconciliation, and what needs to happen to bring us together. In that process, though, I have found something else under the hood which is more troubling. Our society is deeply, fundamentally misogynistic. I know this doesn’t come as a revelation to many of you. It is obvious to the casual objective observer. What’s not obvious is how much it matters. Because we refuse to face how deeply disregard and hatred of women is embedded in our interaction, we’re having an incomplete conversation, laced with hypocrisy.

I hear it in hip-hop and rock-and-roll (let’s not focus on the rappers alone), where women are prop, scorecard, something to use and discard. I hear it in politics and acting, where women are asked about their families, emotions, and fashion while men are asked substantive questions about the issues or their craft. Our misogyny even informs our interaction with LGBTIQ issues. Through this lens of misogyny, a lesbian is just a confused woman who hasn’t met me yet, and who hopefully will bring her partner along to run up my score once she comes around to my way of thinking. A gay man is disgusting because he’s seen as being so much like a woman (and who in their right mind would give manliness up?). A transgender F-to-M is a child in a grown man’s shoes, playing at manhood. A transgender M-to-F is the ultimate deception.

We are trying to understand a three-dimensional cube by looking at lines and squares. Intersectional understanding is predicated on the notion that our system of interaction has unequal inputs and we should have conversations about how to ensure just (not necessarily equal) outcomes. We can’t evaluate the problems being black causes completely separately from the problems being a woman or being poor causes; they feed into each other and amplify each other.

We also know that oppression traps the oppressor as much as the oppressed, though the oppressed suffers more. Men live daily with the limitations placed on them by patriarchal notions of manhood. We can’t cry (except maybe when our sportsball team loses). We can’t be gentle and soft. We are only given anger, stoicism and strength as blunt instruments to deal with everything. What happens when we give a man a full range of healthy tools to become who he needs to be?

Each time we free a segment of society, tremendous potential is unleashed. Much of the creativity and innovation of the 20th century came from people who would have been stifled and lost a century earlier. How much business and technical innovation did we miss because of our rules? What are we still missing as technology booms and is conspicuously missing the contributions of women, black, and Latino people in proportion to their societal presence? Considering that women are half our population, how much potential are we missing by not giving them space to be their fullest selves?