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Greater NW Pride: Changing the Definition of Gender Matters to LGBTQ+ People


Changing the Definition of “Gender” Matters to LGBTQ People

            In 1941, there was the creation of a scientific definition of “mental retardation” by Edgar Doll that was approved by the national body known as the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD), and the federal government.  This definition considered a person “mentally retarded” based on social incompetence due to mental subnormality, which has been developmentally arrested, which obtains at maturity is of constitutional origin, and is essentially incurable.” This was reviewed in 1959, and again in 1961, in which the redefinition of “mental retardation” was largely based upon one’s IQ score.  85 points and below meant a person was “mentally retarded.” In 1972 and ’73, the now-American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) moved the definition down to 70 points and below on the IQ score. And this definition was, again, revised in 1992. Today, a person who was once considered “mentally retarded” is now considered a person who is intellectually challenged by the new definition of the now-American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. While the definitions have changed throughout time since 1941 to today, the person who is being labeled remains the same. However, the definition of what it is to be “intellectually challenged”, as approved by the federal government, changes the direct flow of dollars and support programs for the person who is intellectually challenged (https://mn.gov/mnddc/parallels2/pdf/90s/99/99-MRI-MLW.pdf).
            Changing definitions matter in terms of funding dollars, let alone of a person’s view of one’s self. In 1968, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined “homosexuality as mental disorder” in their Diagnostic Statistics Manual-II (DSM). Because those of us who are “homosexuals” were considered as having or living with a “mental disorder,” drugs and electric shock therapy or “conversion therapy” were considered par for the course of “curing us” of being “homosexuals.” Again, because the APA approved of this definition, the federal government went with the authoritative source, just like they did with “mental retardation.”  It wasn’t until 1987 that “homosexuality completely fell out or the DSM.
            Definitions change. They come and go. They are fluid, because they are all context-dependent terms. As the context changes, so do the terms and definitions. Today, no one uses the words “homosexuality” unless they are using a 1950s text book. They latest change is now on people who are considered transgender (part of the LGBTQ ), in which the federal government is trying to narrow the definition of gender, a move that would drastically change federal protections for a recognition of those who are transgender. The current Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is leading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex or gender under Title IX (federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination).  The new definition would be “the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence” (Casey Quakenbush, Time, Oct. 22, 2018). This is a setback for the 1.4 million Americans who currently identify as transgender who choose how they identify rather than be determined by the sex assigned at birth. In other words, it would erase people who self-identify as transgender. 
            This redefinition of gender, with the intent to remove the issues facing transgender people, is a matter of discrimination, removing a whole category of people, and is a matter of justice. I looked for a response from the denominations, and only the United Church of Christ came out with a statement condemning this action, while all other mainline denominations are silent.*  And we know that silence is equal to complicity. Approval. The silence from the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is deafening.  An entire group of people are being targeted for elimination by re-defining people who are transgender out of existence with a stroke of a pen. I end this blog with this question: what should be our responses, individually and collectively as followers of Jesus?

(*UCC statement: (http://www.ucc.org/news_united_church_of_christ_leaders_condemn_contemplated_attack_on_transgender_and_intersex_rights_10242018).  

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!