Conversation Starter: Megan DeFranza
About Megan DeFranza:
Megan is an author, educator, and facilitator of difficult conversations around sexuality and gender in the church. DeFranza has taught Theology, Church History, and The Great Conversation at Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary as an adjunct professor and visiting instructor. She is the author of Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God. She lives with her husband Andrew and two daughters in Beverly, MA and blogs at Scholastica’s Seedlings.
How did you encounter issues of intersex identity and begin to grapple with its implications for Christian Theology? What experiences informed your view of these issues/questions?
I have to be honest, I had no idea where my research would lead me when I began to wrestle with gender differences and what they were supposed to mean as I figured out my own life—specifically, what kinds of ministry women like me (from a conservative Christian background) were allowed to pursue, how I was to conduct myself, how marriages were supposed to function, etc. I struggled with biblical passages which seemed to restrict women from teaching—something I loved and was encouraged to pursue—as well as gender stereotypes that underscored theological arguments.
Many of the assumptions and descriptions of women in my theology books just didn’t fit my experience as someone who wanted to serve God but who didn’t want anything to do with children’s ministry. I wanted to know if my Greek professor was right in saying that women teaching theology at the college level was a sin (a violation of I Tim. 2:12-15) or if my theology advisor was correct in urging me to get my Ph.D. and return as the first female faculty appointment in the Bible and Theology department.
Thus began my quest to understand how different men and women are, in what ways this matters to God, and what that means for how we should live our lives. This may seem rather late in my career for such a discovery but as you may have gathered from the above, I grew up in a very conservative Christian family and went to very conservative Christian College in the Bible Belt and then on to a conservative evangelical seminary.
All of my evangelical books on sex and gender and sexual ethics assumed that all people are either male or female. They never discussed the reality of intersex—the fact that some people have mixed sex characteristics in their bodies—internal reproductive organs of one sex with external genitalia and secondary sex characteristics of the other sex; or that some people have XXY chromosomes with atypical hormone levels to match.
The truth is some people’s bodies don’t allow them to be placed into the categories of male or female. I later discovered later that one of my favorite evangelical theologians knew about intersex but never discussed it in his text on sexual ethics. Instead, he buried that research deep in his endnotes where only those who knew what they were looking for would find it; meanwhile, he continued to teach that all people are either male or female with gender stereotypes to match. I knew that conservatives have a hard enough time dealing with questions of gender as it relates to women much less transgender or intersex. I knew—especially given the example of the theologian noted above who dared not even mention intersex in his text—that any theological inquiry that questioned the fundamental assumption that all of us are born after the pattern of either Adam or Eve would be met with suspicion. And yet, I was not satisfied. I had been taught that all truth is God’s truth and that God could handle even our toughest questions. I believed we needed to do better not only for our intersex siblings—to welcome them into our communities and communities of faith—but also for men and women in all of their similarities and differences.
2) What do we assume about the worlds of conservative religious tradition and intersex identity? Where is the conversation more complicated?
When most conservatives hear about welcoming the intersex, they think of the rainbow flag and a liberal agenda. This puts many of them automatically on the defensive in a posture of suspicion. And while it is true that intersex persons have found allies among LGBT communities and advocacy groups, their experiences are unique. Some want to join rainbow parades. Others do not. Some intersex persons are conservative Christians or conservative members of other religious traditions trying to come to terms with their experiences and traditionally ways of reading their sacred texts. Intersex persons are members of the human family who do not fall on one side of the culture war or the other.
They want to live in health (choosing for themselves or abstaining from medical intervention), in community (without fear that their bodily differences will lead to exclusion or political/legal trouble), and in families (marrying and raising children if they so choose or remaining single). Unfortunately, too many have found that their conservative communities have been so invested in winning the culture war that, when they share their stories, they are misunderstood as a threat rather than a person seeking to be genuinely known and loved as they are. Too many have been silenced in their own churches—directly asked not to share their testimony with others—or felt implicitly unwelcome—as pastors and parishioners continue to speak as if there are only two kinds of people in the world. But while pastors and lay persons run to the condemning tone of Genesis 1-2, intersex Christians have found other Biblical resources—like Jesus’ acknowledgement of “eunuchs from birth” in Matthew 19:12—which help them find themselves already inside the biblical narrative.
3) How has your own thinking on these questions been informed by the lived experiences of intersex persons you have encountered and engaged?
I have been moved by the courage of intersex folks as they fight for better healthcare and legal status. I have been humbled by their patience in educating others—even those who view them as dangerous or their bodies as “proof of the fall” into sin. I have also been grieved by stories of rejection, abuse, and trauma at the hands of well-meaning parents, doctors, would-be friends and lovers.
At the same time, the stories of some intersex folks have challenged me in my thinking. I used to separate my understanding of intersex from transgender experiences until I heard stories of intersex folks for whom bodily features pointed toward one sex (even if imperfectly) while their sense of gender identity pointed in the other direction. And I have read the stories of transpersons who wished for an intersex diagnosis so that people didn’t think they were crazy.
Add to this all we are learning from the nascent fields of neurobiology and I had to come to terms with the possibility that some transgender experiences are very likely to be connected to bodily factors like the influence of hormones on the brain, even if those same hormones do not affect the genitals or other markers of sex on the body. I learned that I needed to become more open to learning from transgender people as well as from the intersexed.
Where do you see these conversations going? In your own studies, what questions are you most interested in exploring?
In my own research I am trying to stay abreast of emerging scientific studies of sex, particular neurobiology and psychology, and bring these into conversation with the Bible and theology. Too much of our theology – especially that grounded in tradition – has been based upon simplistic readings of Genesis combined with gender stereotypes and prejudices passed down from patriarchal (at times misogynist) cultures.These prejudices go “all the way down” in our theological anthropology, our doctrine of God, our understandings of church and family, etc. There is much work to do.
What is your favorite tip for promoting more open, constructive conversations?
Creating safe space for genuine dialogue is key.
One of the first times I was facilitating a conversation on sex difference and sexuality for a Christian camping organization I learned that my contribution as an educator didn’t go very far. I gave an hour lecture to clarifying common misunderstandings and was met with only three questions from the large group.
I quickly learned that no one felt safe even to ask questions. So, I ditched the rest of my plans and put people into small groups where they were required to share something and be welcomed no matter what they shared – even if it was the simple admission that this conversation is making them feel uncomfortable.
As much as folks feared talking, once it began, and stories began to come out, and trust was built, and acceptance was offered, we were finally beginning to do the work of learning, caring, listening, and finding the courage to share and ask and be together.
What in particular do you wish our society could have more constructive conversation about?
I am grieved by what appear to be widening political lines and the effect this is having on faith communities. I am frustrated by the difficulties we are facing as we try to move toward more honest and constructive conversations about race and economic disparities.
I know good people on the far right and the far left and everywhere in between and I wish I could get them in the same room and help them see the good each brings (or is trying to bring) to the world we share.
What would you be most likely to be overheard in conversation about?
When I am not talking with others about how to parent young girls in our changing and challenging world, I am often talking about the health: the health of the church, of individuals and communities.
As a parent, wife, scholar, friend, and community member, I am often thinking and talking about how to find sustainable patterns of life—for ourselves as individuals, for families, communities, institutions, and ecosystems. We have the pleasure of sharing our house with an organic farmer who works for food justice and sustainability. She keeps us grounded (literally) and reminds me that I can’t do it all. I can only do a very little.
But if each of us is faithful with the little we are given, a lot can be accomplished. Healthy, interdependent community is what holds me together and also relieves me of feeling like I have to do all that needs doing in the world.
What is the best conversation you have had this year?
One of the best conversations I had this year was at a course for pastors on Science and Faith funded by BioLogos and hosted by Gordon College. Here safe space was created for pastors and church leaders to wrestle with topics like evolution which are all too often “off limits” or believed to be antagonistic to the faith.
had the honor of sharing my own work on the science of sex difference and was met with thoughtful engagement as we wrestled together with biology, neuroscience, and Biblical interpretation.
I am grateful for the work that The Public Conversation Project is doing to help all of us learn to be human together. Thank you for all that you do.