by Katie McCoy
“Mom? Dad? I need to tell you I’m not really a girl.” When 12-year-old Grace came out as non-binary to her parents, they were shocked and shaken. She had adopted the feelings of so many girls her age: She believed she was a boy trapped in a girl’s body.
This belief is increasingly common among teenagers and young adults. And they receive no small affirmation from medical care providers, cultural influencers, educators, peers and even parents. Not just that a person feels like they were born in the wrong body, but they actually are born in the wrong body.
But is changing one’s gender really possible? Or is gender made of more than how we feel?
The differences between male and female are comprehensive and vast. Starting at the eighth week in utero, a male baby experiences a surge of testosterone which “masculinizes” his developing brain. Centers that control motion and aggression increase while centers that control language and empathy decrease. At less than a day old, female babies are more responsive to the cries of other babies. Male infants prefer to look at things that are in motion while female infants prefer to look at the faces of their caregivers. Behavioral differences between males and females begin long before society relates to them according to a specific gender.
As children grow, these biologically based differences express themselves in gender-specific behavior. Just think of how boys and girls use their imaginations. Little boys play by imagining conflict—“good guys and bad guys,” superheroes and their nemeses. Little girls play by imagining relationships—house, tea party, school. And this isn’t only true of human children: even young female rhesus monkeys prefer playing with and caring for baby dolls. There are strong neurological differences between the average male and female.
The differences continue as children grow, especially surrounding friendships and communications. Among boys, hierarchy and structure organize their camaraderie. Among girls, hierarchy destroys female friendships. Boys develop friendships around a shared interest or activity. Girls develop friendships around verbal communication and shared emotions. In fact, little girls—and grown women—experience a biological comfort from stress in talking about their feelings. They are neurologically wired to talk!
We haven’t even begun to talk about other biological differences between male and female hormones, reproductive organs and muscular tissues, all of which are structured around the possibility of generating (male) or gestating (female) new life.
These and so many other facts demonstrate two truths about gender. First, our biology reveals our gender as a man or a woman. Despite how a girl may perceive herself, she is comprehensively female. She may not feel at ease being a girl. Or relate to attitudes and activities that are more characteristically masculine. Or wish she had been born a boy. But down to the twenty-third chromosome of her DNA, she is still a girl.
Second, our biology guides our gender as a man or a woman. From the earliest days after birth to the tumultuous days of puberty, our biology drives our behavior. This doesn’t mean we’re just a clump of cells and organs. Rather, it means we’re complex whole beings created in God’s image, both spiritual and physical beings.
The opening chapters of Genesis confirm what God has revealed in creation. In Genesis 1, human beings are created male and female—two equal image-bearing people given charge over the earth. In Genesis 2, human beings relate to each other as man and woman—complex persons who understand themselves by encountering the similarities and differences between each other. To be a male (Gen 1) is to be a man (Gen 2). To be a female (Gen 1) is to be a woman (Gen 2).
Modern science is still discovering what the Bible told us all along: God’s very good design for humanity as His image-bearers includes being embodied as male or female, man or woman; it’s part of how we reflect and connect with our Creator. The differences between male and female are both obviously simple and irreducibly complex. And, our gender identity is so much more than changing emotions or cultural stereotypes. It is a gift of the God who made us to reflect and connect with Himself.
Katie J. McCoy holds a PhD in Systematic Theology, is a former seminary professor and serves as director of women’s ministry at Texas Baptists. McCoy teaches and writes on the intersection of theology, culture and women's issues, and has co-authored a work on the doctrine of humanity as part of the Theology for the People of God series (B&H Academic). Included among her research is discovering the pattern of justice for women in Old Testament laws. You can find Katie online at blondeorthodoxy.com.