Gender Identity, Discrimination, and the Reading of Genesis 1:27 – A Reflection

I recently read a blogpost by Neil F Foster entitled “Fired for using the wrong pronouns”. In it, Foster describes two recent legal cases – one in the UK and one in the US – which Foster believes have potentially negative implications for religious freedom and freedom of speech in Australia.

1. The Cases

Both cases involve people who were dismissed from their employment, and who have alleged that their termination was the product of religious discrimination, in as much as their terminations were the result of their refusal – in accordance with their conservative Christian beliefs – to address other people by their preferred pronoun. In other words, their refusal to acknowledge someone else’s self-identified gender orientation and desire to be addressed by the corresponding masculine/feminine/gender-neutral pronoun.

For those of you unfamiliar with Foster and his work, he is a conservative Christian and legal scholar whose blog comments on the interface between religious belief and the law. On his blogsite, Foster describes himself as “an evangelical Christian, an Associate Professor in law…I have qualifications in both law and theology and teach “Law and Religion” as an elective to later year law students”.

In both cases, the refusal to address others by their preferred pronoun, and the associated claim that this refusal was based in their Christian faith, was grounded in a reading of Genesis 1:27.  This passage (in the NRSV translation) reads:

So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.[1]

In other words, the two claimants in these cases have argued that an integral part of their Christian faith is a reading of Genesis 1:27 that mandates a binary separation of humanity into two specific and distinct genders, without any possibility of “fluidity” or  change from an individual’s identified “biological” gender at birth. This position also specifically denies the right or capacity of individuals to self-identify (and thus change) their gender in distinction from the gender established on their birth certificate.

In the first case, a doctor employed by the UK Department for Work and Pensions was deemed by the Department to have “voluntarily resigned” due to his refusal to abide by the requirement that he address clients by their preferred pronoun (even though he was prepared to address them by their preferred name). The doctor disputed this interpretation of events and launched action against the Department, alleging he had been wrongfully dismissed on the basis of his religious beliefs.

The UK Employment Tribunal ruled against the doctor, in effect finding that his position did not meet the criteria established by the United Kingdom’s Equality Act 2010.

In the second case, a high school teacher in the US was dismissed from their position after refusing to address a transgender student by their preferred pronoun – a refusal that was again argued on the basis of the Christian faith as rooted in a conservative reading of Genesis 1:27. The teacher had agreed, however, to not use any form of pronoun at all when addressing the student in question – in other words, to address them by their preferred name only.

However, an incident occurred in the classroom in which, to prevent the transgendered student from walking into a wall while using a VR headset, the teacher – apparently inadvertently – used a pronoun other than the student’s preferred pronoun. The teacher apologised to the student at the end of the class and re-stated their commitment to not use gendered pronouns. However, the student’s parents lodged a formal complaint against the teacher, who was then required by the school to use the student’s preferred pronoun. The teacher refused and was dismissed.

The teacher has now filed a court case alleging violation of free speech (protection against “compelled speech”) and religious freedom. The matter is yet to be heard.

In discussing the first case, Foster takes exception to the basis upon which the Employment Tribunal dismissed the doctor’s case. Foster argues that the Tribunal misapplied precedent from previous cases, in the process widening the types of religious “manifestation” that are excluded from protection under the Equality Act. Foster also questioned the Tribunal’s finding that even if indirect discrimination had occurred, a claim on this basis would have failed due to the proportionality of the dismissal as an action intended to achieve a legitimate end (ie: ensure the dignity of transgender persons). Foster takes the view that there are several grounds upon which this case might be appealed successfully.

Foster doesn’t discuss the second case in detail, only noting its contentions as set out in the teacher’s statement of claim. However, he does conclude that both cases may have implications for the refusal to use preferred pronouns on religious grounds, as this is an issue that is yet to be tested at law in Australia. Foster notes that this may be a matter of even greater significance in Australia given the current debate surrounding the Federal Government’s draft Religious Discrimination Bill. He concludes by noting that there are also non-religious grounds for the refusal to use a preferred pronoun, such as those put forward by some feminist commentators.

2. Translation and Multiplicity: Two Warnings About The Bible

It is not the purpose of this post to comment on Foster’s legal analysis and opinions in connection with these two cases, for the simple reason that I am not qualified to do so. However, I would like to reflect on the passage seemingly at the heart of these two cases – Genesis 1:27 – in order to challenge the interpretation of this passage offered by Foster and other conservative Christians, as well as the view that this interpretation represents a “mainstream” understanding. Before I do that, however, I think it important to note two critical caveats.

The first caveat is that it must always be remembered that the Bible is a translated text. The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in a dialect of ancient Greek known as Koine.  Ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek are not the same as modern “standard” Hebrew and Greek. Consequently, both ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek contain words and passages which are difficult to translate, which are capable of multiple interpretations, and which carry ideas and concepts that, while they might have been common in the ancient world, do not translate readily into modernity. Texts written in these languages need to be translated into modern languages (including English) through the fraught process of interpretation – which is not an exact science.

The significance of this is that when biblical texts are presented in English, it is often with a confidence and an assertion of authority that is not warranted; or which, at the very least, disguises the complex issues of translation and the need to proceed cautiously as a result. This is relevant, not just to Christians as they read the Bible in modern translation, but for non-Christians who may be prone to accepting the assertions of “commentators” about what the Bible (or a specific biblical text) “means”. It’s why, as a Christian Minister, I read the NRSV: it may be less “elegant” than some other translations, but it is careful, scholarly, and rigorous in its identification of uncertain or disputed passages.

In other words, we can never simply take the biblical text at face value – even for those passages where there exists a scholarly consensus, there will always be a “margin of error” that is the inevitable product of reading the Bible as a translated text. This will not suit those who wish to make cut-and-dried assertions about what the Bible “says” or “means”, or who wish to argue that a particular translation is “definitive”; but it is, in my view, the only intellectually honest – and morally legitimate – approach one can adopt given the complexities involved.

The second caveat is that the Bible is not a homogenous document that says the same thing at all times in all circumstances. The Bible is not just a collection of multiple textual forms, it also presents a multiplicity of theological perspectives. Biblical scholars have long been aware that the Bible does not speak “with one voice” – it presents a number of different responses to the possibility of God in human life. Where the unity of the Bible occurs is in its metanarrative: in the overarching story of God’s faithfulness to covenant with humanity, and commitment to bringing that covenant into full fruition. This is the story that begins in creation, which is expressed through the sacred history of Israel, which (for Christians) finds its fulfilment in the person of Christ, and which continues to unfold through the life of the world in the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Again, this is relevant for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians it is a warning against the propensity to hone in on those passages or theological perspectives within the Bible that suit our particular prejudices or preferences. Rather, all the perspectives must be held together in a relational tension that recognises the unity of the meta-narrative of salvation, rather than the specific claims made by one particular point of view.

For non-Christians, this is relevant because it again warns of the need to be aware of the complexities surrounding biblical translation, rather than accept without demur the claims and assertions made by “commentators” or others who tend to have a high profile in the media (especially social media). The notion that there is a single “biblical” position, or a single “biblical” way of understanding, or that any given perspective within Christianity represents the “biblical” viewpoint is, in my view, deeply misguided – at best. At worst, it can be downright pernicious.

This does not mean that I accept the proposition that any and every view on the subject of biblical translation and interpretation is equally valid and needs to be taken with equal seriousness. It does not mean that I am critical only of the conservative Christian interpretation, and that I don’t regard the “progressive” Christian perspective as equally problematic in many respects. Rather, it means that I reject the claim that any one position can be said to be “biblical” to the exclusion of all other positions; or, that any one perspective has the right to dictate to others what a “biblical” interpretation of Scripture “looks like”. The claims for authority and moral ascendancy associated with these claims are, in my view, pernicious, and represent the insertion of human power-politics into the life of faith.

3. How Mainstream Is “Mainstream”?

With these caveats in mind, what are the issues surrounding the conservative Christian interpretation of Genesis 1:27? The first thing I would like to do is challenge the notion that the conservative view that Genesis 1:27 establishes a binary distinction in human gender is a “mainstream” view.

In at least three different points in his post, Foster describes this interpretation as “mainstream”. This application of “mainstream” is particularly utilised in Foster’s critique of the decision of the UK Employment Tribunal to reject the doctor’s claims of discrimination. By applying the word “mainstream” in this context, Foster is suggesting that the Tribunal ignored a widely held – and, indeed, commonly held to the point of comprising a majority – view that accords with the conservative Christian interpretation of Genesis 1:27. His point (as I see it) is that the Tribunal’s decision is at odds with “community standards” or “community views” and is therefore a form of “judicial activism” that goes against public opinion. In the alternative, Foster seems to be suggesting at the very least that the conservative Christian interpretation of Genesis 1:27 is so widely held that the Tribunal ought not to have utilised precedent established in other cases to dismiss the doctor’s case; and that in doing so, it disadvantages and prejudices a wide section of society (and, again, the implication is that for “wide” read “majority”) for the sake of preserving a minority from being potentially “offended”.

However, Foster’s use of the word “mainstream” is problematic, to say the least. Politicians frequently use the word “mainstream” in order to represent their views and policies as representative of the general public will. In other words, the word “mainstream” has become a form of moral grandstanding: it invests one’s own views with authority and legitimacy by characterising them as representative and democratic, while simultaneously demonising the views of others as unrepresentative and undemocratic. The fact that one’s views may not actually accord with the view of the majority is irrelevant: what is relevant is the claim which the word “mainstream” makes for one’s own position, and the characterisation it ascribes to the views of others.

Within the Church, and especially in debates surrounding theology and biblical interpretation, phrases such as “biblical” (which Foster also uses), “orthodox” (Foster again), and “traditional” serve the same purpose. They exist, not in order to establish any factual criteria, but in order to characterise one’s own position favourably against the position of others. In other words, they serve the same purpose as the word “mainstream” – to establish one’s own moral superiority and de-legitimise the moral standing of others.

Foster’s claim that the conservative Christian interpretation of Genesis 1:27 is “mainstream” can rightly be treated with suspicion. While it is an interpretation that undoubtedly exists within the “mainstream” Christian community, that does not make it a “mainstream” view as such – at least, not in the sense that Foster appears to be asserting. While it is undoubtedly a view that is in the majority within certain conservative non-denominational churches, and within conservative sections of “mainstream” churches, this again is not the same as claiming that it is a “mainstream” view – that is to say, a view about which there is a general consensus within the Church, never mind within wider society. Indeed, polling of public attitudes about issues such as same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, and the right of transgendered persons to access public services on a without prejudice basis suggests that public opinion does not accord with conservative Christian views.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the most that can be said about Foster’s claim that the conservative Christian interpretation of Genesis 1:27 represents a “mainstream” view is simply that: it is a claim, and nothing more.  Of course, one could say the same about my view of Foster’s assertions on this point. However, given the problematic connotations attached to phrases like “mainstream”, and the purposes for which those connotations are utilised, Foster’s assertions about the “mainstream” nature of the conservative Christian interpretation of Genesis 1:27 do not helpfully advance any discussion on this issue. Indeed, they only serve to distract the debate by sending it down side-alleys involving competing claims about whose view is “mainstream”, and who therefore holds the moral high-ground.

4. The Problem of Literalism

The next issue which arises is the issue of literalism. In his critique of the decision by the UK Employment Tribunal, Foster notes the Tribunal’s characterisation of the doctor’s faith (a characterisation the doctor accepted as accurate) as one which regards the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God. Although not explicitly stated, implicit within this characterisation is the view that the Bible is to be read literally – and that to read it any other way constitutes not regarding the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God. In other words, if Genesis 1:27 says that God created an exclusive, binary distinction between human genders, then that’s what it says and there can be no arguments about it.

Accordingly, at this point it would be helpful revisiting what Genesis 1:27 says in the translated English of the NRSV:

So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Bearing in mind the caveats I have already mentioned regarding the hazards of translation (and the reason, therefore, why I choose to utilise the NRSV), what immediately strikes me is that God is characterised as “he”. Given that the use (or, rather, the objection to the use) of preferred pronouns is at the heart of the cases Foster mentions, ascribing the pronoun “he” to God is of more than academic interest. Because the question that immediately arises is that if the Bible describes God as “he”, and if the Bible is to be read literally in order for it to be regarded as infallible and inerrant, then does the use of the masculine pronoun in Genesis 1:27 mean that God is – indeed, must be – exclusively male in gender?

Of course, this type of literalism immediately creates a problem: if God is “male”, then how is it possible for someone who is “female” to be created in the “likeness and image” of God? Indeed, how is it possible for someone who is “female” to access the dignity inherent in each person’s creation in the “likeness and image” of God – except, perhaps, via their relationship with “males”! But then, if it is the case that God is not exclusively male in the strict gendered sense of the term, how is it possible for humans who are exclusively gendered beings to likewise hold the “likeness and image” of God?

This is not a case of semantic hair splitting. Nor am I being mischievous simply for the sake of poking holes in someone else’s understanding of Scripture. Rather, I am trying to highlight the issues that immediately emerge from the insistence that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant word of God,and that the standard for regarding it as such is to read it literally. Because either God is exclusively male, in which case “females” cannot possibly be created in the “likeness and image” of God; or God is not exclusively “male”, in which case it is not possible for beings that are exclusively gendered – whether “male” or “female” – to be created in the “likeness and image” of God.

The problems raised by insisting on literalism as the benchmark for treating the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God are not just logical, they are theological as well.

Of course, it can be argued – and I have indeed heard this argument – that the “he” in the translated text of the Old Testament actually corresponds more closely to “it” in modern English, in order to highlight the ontological difference between God and humanity. But that only raises two further issues. Firstly, if we are able to read the “he” as it is applied to God in a flexible and non-literal way, then why is it not “biblical” to do so with respect to the “he” and “she” implicit in the gender assignments of “male” and “female”? Indeed, once we start reading the “he” as applied to God in any way other than as it applies to “male”, we immediately destroy literalism as the benchmark for regarding the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God. Taking the Bible seriously no longer becomes a matter of reading it literally.

Secondly, the treatment of “he” as corresponding to “it” only brings us back to the question that has already been asked: if God is not an exclusively gendered being, how can the dignity implicit in our creation “in the likeness and image” of God be a matter of our gender, or of the exclusive nature of gender assignment? This is a critical issue precisely because those who argue that Genesis 1:27 establishes gender exclusivity clearly link that exclusivity with our creation in the “likeness and image” of God. But if God is not a gendered being, then gender identity is irrelevant to our dignity as beings created in the “likeness and image” of God. That dignity emerges from the fact of our creation by God, and not gender identity – much less from any exclusivity associated with that identity.

The whole point here is that grounding an interpretation of Genesis 1:27 in any notion that the Bible must be read literally in order for it to be treated as the infallible and inerrant word of God, immediately involves one in a whole series of contradictions and illogicities. It also provides the grounds for the pernicious treatment of women and others who cannot be exclusively identified as “male” – as, indeed, has already occurred throughout the course of Christian history. The whole idea of “male headship” and of women being subject to men resides, not only in the maleness of Jesus and the disciples, but in the (oft unspoken) view that God actually is male, and that “female” (or non-“male”) dignity is a subsidiary of, and subordinate to, “male” dignity.

The literalist view ignores all the warnings of the translation process in order to suppose a link between the identity of God, the (alleged) exclusive gender identity of humanity,  and human dignity arising from its creation in the “likeness and image” of God – when in truth the only relation is between God’s identity as creator and humanity’s identity as created.

5. Binary Exclusion – Or Duality?

All of which brings us to the issue of Genesis 1:27 and whether or not it sets out an exclusive binary gender orientation for humanity. Again, the text in the NRSV translation reads:

So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Now – notice that formula: “male and female”. As noted above, this is the translation provided by a range of versions, including the King James Version and the New King James Version. So it cannot be said that this is a translation particular to the NRSV.

Why is that important? Precisely because the formula “male and female” is not an example of an exclusive binary condition. If the text read “male or female” this would meet the criteria of exclusive binary gender assignment. Male or female means exactly that: human beings could only exist in one of two conditions – male or female. But the formula male and female implies something rather different. It is not a binary but a duality. And a duality is not the same as a binary. A binary references exclusive, permanently distinct states of being. A duality, on the other hand, implies simultaneous states of being, in which both conditions are – or are potentially – present.

In other words, in exactly the same way that referencing God as “he” does not mean that God is male, so the formula “male and female” means that being created in the “likeness and image of God” does not mean human gender identity is exclusive and binary. On the contrary, it means that both gender identities are present in every individual’s creation in the “likeness and image of God”, and are accordingly integral to our creation – and, indeed, that there is the potential for transition and movement between those gender identities. And because our creation is biological in nature, we know that it is not static; it not only grows and changes, but is subject to fluctuation. And one of the great insights of science in recent centuries is that this biological fluctuation sometimes means that our physical formation may be incomplete at birth and may therefore require further movement to complete – and that, as a consequence, the psychological identity stemming from our biological formation may be subject to fluidity, may be subject to change and transition over time.

Of course, it might be argued that this interpretation involves an anachronistic imposition upon the text, of me foisting my views about gender identity upon the authors of this particular passage of Genesis. Afterall, they existed in a world and with a view of human personhood that pre-dated scientific enquiry into our biological and genetic makeup. Accordingly, when the authors of Genesis wrote “male and female”, what they meant was a distinction between genders – the same kind of distinction implied by the phrase “male or female”.

To this argument I make two responses. Firstly, that there is nothing wrong or invalid with interpreting the Scriptural text from the standpoint of modern scientific knowledge about the human person, even if doing so involves applying anachronisms. It is the task of each generation to read Scripture seriously; that is, among other things, to read Scripture in the light of, and in conjunction with, the insights provided by other fields of human knowledge and enquiry. There is nothing inconsistent or “unbiblical” in doing so – unless, of course, your view is that the Bible is a monolithic text containing only a single theological viewpoint about all things over the whole course of human history.

But, as I have argued above, reading the Bible seriously is not a matter of reading it literally (or not, at least, reading it literally when it suits you to do so). And even if the authors of Genesis did mean a particular thing about gender identity in Genesis 1:27 – a contention that can’t actually be proven – this still does not mean the text isn’t open to interpretation. Because if you understand “word of God” as meaning dictated by God to humanity instead of “God understood through the lens of human perspective”, then you are, in effect, claiming to know the mind of God. You are claiming an inside knowledge of God’s intentions, never mind the intentions of the authors of Genesis. This is precisely what the claim that the biblical text is “clear-cut” and does not require interpretation amounts to – a claim that, in my view, does nothing to facilitate understanding of the text.

In other words, in order to take the Bible seriously – to understand it as the “word of God” – interpretation is not merely an option, it is a necessity. My interpretation may not line up with yours; and the weight of logic and available evidence may mean one interpretation is more credible and might carry more weight than another; but that does not mean it is in any way “unbiblical” to interpret the Bible other than in a literal (or quasi-literal) way, especially if that interpretation is conducted in the light of other fields of human knowledge. On the contrary, the claim to hold a “biblical” view is an act of monumental arrogance.

Secondly, the argument that interpreting Genesis 1:27 as a duality and not a binary  involves the imposition of an anachronism, ignores the anachronistic imposition made by conservative Christians in their own interpretation of Scripture. For example, with respect to homosexuality, conservative Christians will often cite various Scriptural texts as “evidence” of God’s condemnation of being gay. However, when you drill down to those texts, you frequently discover that it is perfectly and legitimately possible to read the cited texts as referencing specific sexual acts (which turn out to not be exclusively homosexual acts), or sexual morality – but not sexuality. In other words, the claims made by conservative Christians that these texts are references to homosexuality as this is understood in the modern sense of the term is an anachronistic assertion – it is imposing upon the biblical text, when it speaks of sexual acts and sexual morality,  notions of sexual orientation which the text does not contain, and which is actually the product of an understanding of the human person that has only emerged in the last few hundred years through advances in psychology, biology, medicine, and genetics. In assuming that the authors of the biblical texts possessed an understanding of human sexuality – and sexual identity – identical to that possessed by modern society, and that this is reflected in those texts which allegedly support the condemnation of homosexuality, conservative Christians are guilty of the same anachronistic application of which they often accuse their critics.

Now, as I have already argued, there is nothing wrong with interpreting Scripture in light of other fields of human knowledge, even if this involves the imposition of anachronisms. However, the point here is that conservative Christians can’t have their cake and eat it: they can’t argue, on the one hand, that it is “unbiblical” of me to interpret Genesis 1:27 through an “anachronistic” application of gender identity, while on the other hand, attempting to foist upon the Bible (and other Christians) a reading of texts relating to sexual activity and morality that relies (ironically) upon an anachronistic application of modern notions of sexual identity. Either conservative Christians have to accept that any and every interpretation of Scripture (including their own) will involve – or potentially involve – anachronisms; or, they have to actually practice the rules they seek to impose upon everyone else.

Put another way, there is no such thing as a “pure” or “biblical” interpretation of Scripture. However we read the Bible, the interpretation which supports that reading will necessarily involve elements informed by our location in a specific cultural, political, economic, and scientific context. To deny this is foolish; to seek to manipulate it in order to characterise one set of interpretations as “biblical” while demonising another as “anachronistic” is not merely hypocritical, it is abusive and tyrannical.

Moreover, I believe that one can legitimately argue that understanding human creation “in the likeness and image of God” as a duality and not as a binary is perfectly consistent with the Christian understanding of God as Trinity. In precisely the same way that the three Persons of the Trinity are understood to be both simultaneously and distinctly present in the Godhead, so human beings created in this “likeness and image” are simultaneously and distinctly male and female. In other words, human beings are not a gender binary, but a relational duality – a duality whose features are simultaneously and distinctly present in dynamic relationship with one another.  This dynamism – the perichoresis, to give it its theological term – facilitates interplay and movement between the two. And the word “distinctly” in this context does not mean “separate” or “exclusive” – rather, it references particularity. A particularity that exists in dynamic relationship with other particularities to form a greater unity.   Moreover, just as the Christian understanding of the Godhead is that the Persons of the Trinity are not “intermixed” but are “of one being”, so gender identity can be understood as consisting of particularities which, while they have their own distinct features, are nonetheless simultaneously present within all of us – they are “of one being”.

In other words, the specific gender identity that results from the interplay of these simultaneous particularities is the unity that we call a human being. But this unity is not a dichotomous monolithic unity, just or only “male” or “female”. It is both/and – it is, in the words of Genesis 1:27, male and female. The fact that, for most of us, this takes a specific form, should not blind us to the underlying reality: that for some people, this form is incomplete at birth, physically and/or psychologically, and requires transition over time in order to achieve its completion. But this, too, should not come as a surprise to Christians. Afterall, we understand creation as an ongoing unfolding, a transition from incompletion to completion.  And what is true at the meta level of creation is also true at the micro level, at the level of the individual and the particularities of the individual. Evolution is not just a scientific concept; it is a deep descriptor of how Christians understand the operation of God throughout cosmic history.

6. Confusing Transgenderism For Transhumanism

I am not so naïve is to think that any of these arguments will persuade a conservative Christian to re-think their position. And in a sense, that’s not what I hope to achieve. Rather, I want to reflect on the issues of gender identity and the interpretation of Genesis 1:27 in such a way as to it make clear that there are ways of reading and understanding this text that both critiques the conservative position, and demonstrates that it is possible to interpret this passage in a manner that is as “biblical” and as legitimate as the position articulated by those who adopt a more literal position. Moreover, I want to challenge the idea that the conservative Christian reading of Genesis 1:27 represents a “mainstream” understanding – that is, “mainstream” in the sense that I believe Foster utilises the term in his analysis, namely, that the conservative interpretation is a widely held position enjoying a broad consensus of support within the church as a whole (and, by implication, within wider society). This isn’t to say that the conservative position doesn’t exist within mainstream Christianity; rather, it is to make the point that it is just one of the positions extant within the Church, and not “the” or “the only legitimate” position which exists within the Christian community.  By characterising their position as the “biblical” and “orthodox” and “mainstream” view, conservative Christians make a claim for their position that is, in my view, both exaggerated and untrue.

That said, do I think there is anything legitimate in the conservative position vis-à-vis transgenderism? Actually, I do think there is a thin edge in the conservative Christian argument where they are expressing a legitimate concern. However, I also take the view that this thin edge involves a category error on the part of conservatives, inasmuch as the concern they are inchoately articulating relates to transhumanism and not transgenderism. And the concern about transhumanism centres on the commodification of the human person, the taking of a “consumerist” view of our physical being. This is the view that, if we don’t like this or that aspect of our physicality, we can make a “consumer choice” to alter that which we don’t like through surgery or drugs; or, potentially, through cybernetics, or AI, or some other “enhancement” technology.

I believe the commodification of the human person in the direction of transhumanism, the reduction of our physical being to the level of merely another consumer product, whose reality we can alter on the basis of personal preferences, represents a dangerously dehumanising trend. But that is not the same as transgenderism. No transgendered person “just decides” to “change” their gender, any more than any person “decides” they are gay or straight or some other sexual orientation. Rather, gender identity is integral to our understanding of self, both as physical and as psychological beings; and when the two do not align, the consequences can be damaging at best, and tragic at worst. The conservative insistence that there are only two, fixed and separate, gender identities denies the complex realities of what it means to be a transgendered person. In itself, it amounts to a denial of what it means to be human.

This is not to say that there aren’t complex and problematic ethical issues surrounding transgenderism, especially as it relates to children and teenagers. But that, again, is a separate issue from transgenderism itself; the ethics of how we engage the reality of transgenderism does not deny the authenticity of transgenderism as an expression of human personhood.

7. Conclusion: Beware The Law of Unintended Consequences

I would like to conclude by making it clear that I do not think – and am in no way suggesting – that Foster, in his critique and analysis, is arguing for the “right” of conservative Christians to deal with transgendered persons in a prejudicial and discriminatory manner. Quite the contrary, I think that Foster is quite properly expressing the view that conservative Christians should be free from prejudice in their employment on the basis of their interpretation of passages such as Genesis 1:27. Obviously, there will be some who will assert that to argue the latter is to argue the former; but I respectfully disagree. I believe that all people, as a consequence of their innate human dignity, are entitled to freedom from prejudice in all the spheres of human life, including employment.

Moreover, as noted above, Foster cites non-religious objections to the use of preferred pronouns, including objections from feminist commentators. So this issue cannot be reduced to a question of overcoming religious objections to transgenderism.

However, we cannot avoid the problem of what to do when competing worldviews or systems clash: what, in this instance, should be done if an employee expresses the religious conviction that there are only two distinct human genders – male or female – and that, as a consequence, they cannot refer to others by their preferred pronoun? If the organisational or institutional policy is to respect personal preferences around pronouns, should the employee in question be disciplined or even dismissed?

I believe that the only reasonable response in such circumstances is to strike a “reasonable balance” that facilitates the reasonable concerns of all parties. Again, this will not satisfy the partisans on either side of the debate; but I am less concerned with satisfying partisans than I am with securing a reasonable – and reasonably just – outcome. Obviously, what that might “look like” in practice will depend on the circumstances in each situation; but in the cases cited by Foster, one might imagine the employer and employee agreeing to reasonable ameliorative processes that leave the rights and dignity of both parties intact. This, of course, will require both parties having free access to advice, information, and support; and a preparedness by both parties to move from their “preferred” positions in order to facilitate agreement. Thus, for example, an employee who declines to refer to a client by their preferred pronoun might agree to hand them over to a colleague, or avoid the use of personal pronouns altogether, or refer to the client by their preferred name, and so forth. Likewise, an employer might be reasonably expected to furnish such an employee with a range of workable alternatives for dealing with the situation without prejudicing them in their employment.

One senses from Foster’s analysis that in the cases he cites, legal action might have been avoidable had such an approach been adopted. But this only makes all the more disappointing and troubling Foster’s apparent endorsement, in a separate analysis of the draft Religious Discrimination Bill, of the proposed legislation’s protection of both the right of conservative Christians to freedom from prejudice in their employment as well as the right of religious bodies to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.

In my view, this does not accord with the “balancing” principle. If a conservative Christian is entitled to protection from prejudice in their employment, then so is every other employee – including those employees operating in schools or other organisations operated by conservative Christian groups. Thus, for example, would a teacher who is also a “liberal” Christian, and who is dismissed from a conservative Christian school because they do not hold a conservative view of Genesis 1:27, be able to sue for discrimination on religious grounds – or would this be a case of a religious body being free to operate in accordance with its religious principles? One senses from Foster’s analysis that it would be a case of the latter. However, if this is so, then conservative Christians cannot make a claim for protection based on a conservative reading of Genesis 1:27 when they are employed in “liberal” Christian, non-Christian, or secular environments. The push by conservative Christians for the application of a special class of protection to themselves as individuals, and to their institutions, is hugely problematic and needs to be resisted.

In other words, this comes back to conservative Christians not being able to have their cake and eat it. Either all employees (including the employees of conservative Christian institutions) are entitled to freedom from prejudice in their employment on the basis of religious belief, or none are. Either all organisations (including “liberal” Christian, non-Christian, and secular organisations) are entitled to act against employees on the basis of stated organisational policy/ethos, or none are. Foster and other conservative Christians can’t have it both ways: either they accept the right of others to access the same freedoms they claim for themselves, or they admit that the concerns around “religious freedom” are just a smokescreen for the “right” of conservative Christians to act prejudicially against others, whether at an individual or an organisational level.

As noted above, I do not believe that this is what Foster is arguing. However, as also noted above, this is what makes his apparent endorsement of the draft Bill’s double-standard especially troubling and problematic. As Foster notes, the full implications of the proposed legislation (if it becomes law), and of the two cases he cites, are yet to play themselves out in Australian jurisdictions. It would appear there is a real danger that the Law of Unintended Consequences might have the final word in this issue – to the detriment of us all.


[1] I used the New Revised Standard Version because, in my view, it is the most scholarly, most accurate, and most reliable translation available in English today. But for the purposes of this article, I also referred to the New International Version, the Good News Version, the Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, the NRSV Catholic Edition, the King James Version, and the New King James Version. All these versions used the formula “male and female” – the importance of which will become evident later.

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