A Social Identity Approach

[Outline — PDF]

In case some of you are wondering about the title change, let me just say that I now have first-hand experience with the problem of boxing myself into a corner with a conference abstract. I was hoping to present some preliminary conclusions from my research of virgins and widows in Jewish antiquity, but I ended up deciding to focus more on the social identity framework that I use to understand secondary gender identities in the first place. So, if you came hoping to hear more about Jewish virgins and widows, feel free to ask a question during the Q&A, or find me after the sessions are over, and I’ll do my best to answer.

The Road Map

For those of you who would like to know where we’re going, my basic outline is as follows. First, I will explore the idea of second-order gender particularity and its relevance to our concerns here. Second, I will explain what I mean by the term “ethnosexual,” and hopefully provide sufficient warrant for its use in discussions about gender identity. After this, I will outline the basic contours of social identity theory, and explore ways it brings together issues raised by the previous two points. Finally, I will reflect briefly on specific applications of our discussion to gender identities in both antiquity and modern-day society.

Second-Order Gender Particularity

For those of you who are familiar with the field of contemporary gender theory, the idea of particularity and difference is like an old friend. In the paper I presented during this program unit last year, I tried to make a case for distinguishing between particularity that grounds primary gender identity (that is, ‘man’ and ‘woman’) and particularity that indexes secondary gender identities (such as ‘soccer mom,’ ‘diva,’ ‘jock,’ ‘man’s man’). In this paper, I am concerned with the latter, but it will be helpful briefly to reinforce our understanding of the former in order to make clear what I mean by the latter.

First, primary gender identity is constrained by creational norms, and is therefore binary. Genesis 1:27 says that mankind was created “male and female,” (Hebrew zakār and neqēvāh) which are biological terms that highlight physical differences between the sexes. A Christian doctrine of gender should reflect a corporeal anthropology, and affirm that individuals do not merely have bodies, but that they are bodies. In other words, our bodies constrain all aspects of our experience, including our gender. Men do not have male bodies; men are male bodies, and male bodies are men.

Second, identities are enculturated. In Genesis 2, the language shifts from biological “sex” categories to social “gender” categories (Hebrew īsh and īshāh). When God says “It is not good for man to be alone” in 2:18, the author signals a recapitulation of the creation account by reintroducing chaos into the narrative. In this context, we see first-order masculinity emerging when the man orders and names the animals and birds, and eventually Eve, in an effort to resolve the chaos by filling the void opened by the divine pronouncement. Likewise, we see first-order femininity emerge when Eve is created to fill the void, relating in reciprocity to the man, rescuing him from the emptiness of his solitary existence. Without the woman, there is no interpersonal communion, which is why the narrator extrapolates from this situation the pronouncement in 2:24 that man must leave his family of origin and cleave to his wife, and not the other way around. This is confirmed by noting the usage of the Hebrew word ‘ezer (translated “helper” in 2:18, 20) in the rest of the Pentateuch. In all cases except for one ‘ezer is used when referring to God as superior party who helps/saves Israel.

Third, these first-order gender differences are prefigured in the Genesis 1 creation narrative. First-order masculinity mirrors the creative activity of God in naming and ordering creation during the first three days. Likewise, first-order femininity mirrors the creative activity of God in filling creation in the second three days. This is not to say that God possesses one gender or even both genders, but that he creates the idea of gender in humanity in order to mirror aspects of his personhood that we then understand in gendered terms.

Finally, humanity is jointly commissioned in Gen. 1:28ff in ways that express first-order gender particularity. The first command to “fill the earth” mirrors the fullness that femininity symbolizes, and the second command to “rule the earth” mirrors the order of masculinity. And yet by issuing the commands to both the man and the woman together, the picture that results is of a unified humanity jointly carrying out the creation mandate in a partnership.

So that’s primary, or first-order, gender particularity. Now, let’s look at secondary particularity.

In general, humanistic gender theories approach the issue of secondary particularity in two opposing ways. The first major approach views differences as incommensurate and therefore beyond the reach of comparative categories. Since meaning is endlessly deferred, so is the ability to isolate relevant secondary traits long enough for them to index stable group identities. The postmodern feminism of Judith Butler is representative of this approach, in which gender is recast in performative terms. One important component of this approach that is relevant to our question here is its reliance on post-structural perspectives on the interconnectivity of power and knowledge. Specifically, post-structuralism interrogates social processes that normalize dominant identities at the expense of weaker identities. Certainly, evangelical Christians have well-founded concerns about post-structuralist rejection of objective knowledge. At the same time, the systematic marginalization and suppression of nonconforming perspectives is an important dynamic for Christians to track if we truly want to embody justice and love for all.

The opposite approach to the issue of secondary particularity in contemporary gender theories is one that understands differences as relatively stable, and thus able to index collective identities into categories. Intersectionality theories are particularly relevant to these perspectives. In intersectional feminist theories, they underwrite unambiguous attempts to marshal allegiances to specific identities organized around the concrete experiences of subgroups of women. One example of this approach to secondary gender particularity is the branch of feminism known as womanist studies, largely populated by feminist women of color.

Another example of intersectionality at work is the feminist and lesbian theory of Adrienne Rich and Monique Wittig. Although technically prior to the initial formulizations of intersectional theory, both Rich and Wittig nonetheless employed an intersectional strategy when they interrogated the heteronormative foundations of feminine identity. In her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Rich reframes lesbian intimacy as a continuum of “woman-to-woman” relationships. She does this in order to buttress her claim that gender ought to figure more prominently that sexual orientation in identity politics. Wittig, on the other hand, argues in the opposite direction. She makes the controversial claim that a lesbian is not a woman, on the grounds that the identity ‘woman’ is properly restricted to contexts that are governed by heterosexual norms. In other words, the identity ‘woman’ is implicitly defined with reference to ‘man,’ which implies a heterosexual standard. Since the identity ‘lesbian’ is arguably not defined with direct reference to ‘man,’ nor does it operate within the sphere of heterosexuality, Wittig claims that a lesbian cannot be a woman. So, in the case of both Rich and Wittig, sexual orientation is a secondary axis of particularity that circumscribes a particular set of feminine identities, even though they arrive at opposite conclusions.

This second approach also contains elements that might be helpful for a Christian understanding of secondary particularity, not least because the emphasis on intersectionality represents a serious attempt to grapple with the effects of diversity on the process of identity formation. As we will soon discover, the language of social identity theory can further illuminate the real-life salience of secondary gender differences among men and among women.

Ethnosexual Identity

Now that we’ve outlined our focus on secondary particularity, we can now address the next term in my title: ethnosexual identity. In order to explain what I mean by this term, let me draw your attention to the work of New Testament scholar Denise Kimber Buell. In an important article entitled “Rethinking the Relevance of Race for Early Christian Self-Definition,” Buell uses the term “ethnoracial” to describe the slippage between racial identity and ethnic identity constructs in both ancient and contemporary cultures. Both race and ethnicity are “material and discursive concepts structured by the dynamic tension between claims to ‘realness’ and fluidity.”

First, we should note the following longstanding claim among many contemporary gender theorists (particularly post-structuralists, but not limited to that approach): that the distinction between sex (as a biological classification) and gender (as a social construct) isn’t airtight because of the socially embedded nature of gendered human experience. The most common way we make sense of sex differences is by means of categories drawn from our experience. Again, this doesn’t mean that Christian discussion about sexual difference as constraining gender identity is meaningless, as I’ve already discussed. Indeed, both are true. Just as we have theological reasons for grounding primary gender identity in the concrete body, so also we might have theological reasons for talking generically about secondary differences.

Second, neither Greek nor Hebrew has a word that exactly corresponds to our English word “gender.” Indeed, the closest approximation (in Greek) is the word genos, which is usually translated by the term “race,” but is sometimes used to denote gendered ‘otherness’ and not racial ‘otherness.’ In English, by contrast, ‘otherness’ is generally communicated by the term ‘ethnic,’ which is derived from the Greek word ‘ethnos.’ [Include illustration of referring to non-white individuals as “ethnic,” or as characterized by ‘ethnicity.’ These individuals somehow possess ethnicity, while ‘white’ is considered default.] There is no happy solution, but it seems that by combining terms that together reflect both the bodily ‘givens’ of gendered experience as well as the enculturated aspects of our identity, we can emphasize difference itself as a meaningful category, regardless of its origin or etiology.

Third, it’s helpful to remember the long tradition in Western culture of locating ‘otherness’ in the feminine gender, instead of dispersing it equally among the sexes. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir describes symbolic forms of patriarchy in her landmark book The Second Sex in an indictment that remains instructive today: “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”

If these comments still ring true today, then perhaps we need to intentionally theorize ethnosexual difference in abstract terms that are equally applicable to masculinity and femininity alike. For this precise reason, we now turn our attention to the field of social psychology in general, and specifically to the social identity theory of Henri Tajfel and his colleague John Turner.

Social Identity Theory

Henri Tajfel was a Polish Jew who was studying in Paris when World War II began. He fought in the French army after being drafted, but was eventually captured by the Germans. In the end, he only survived the war because the Germans assumed he was a French Jew, and not Polish. After the war ended, he discovered that most of his family had died, so he moved to England and enrolled at the University of London to study psychology. After earning his doctorate, he eventually gained a teaching post as Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Bristol in 1967, where he taught and conducted research until his death in 1982.

Much of the subject matter of Tajfel’s research was drawn from the tragic events of his wartime experience. Indeed, the general contours of his approach to the social psychology of intergroup behavior stemmed from a series of experiments which he summarized in a 1971 journal article.[1]

Let’s start with a definition of social identity. Tajfel defines a social identity as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.”[2]

According to this brief definition, a social identity can be described as having three components. First, the cognitive component of social identity is simply the awareness that an individual is a member of a particular group. Second, the evaluative component is comprised of the net social benefits (or lack of benefits) that are attached to group membership. Finally, the emotional component of a social identity is the constellation of affective responses to the previous two components. These responses may be directed towards the group itself, or towards particular individuals who themselves may be either outside or inside the group. And significantly, at least for our purposes here, all three aspects of a social identity are present regardless of the size of the group or the breadth of the group’s distribution throughout a society.

These three components indicate the general focus of Tajfel’s social identity theory, which is an attempt to explain the dynamics of intergroup relationships and interactions. At the heart of this explanation is a careful distinction between interpersonal and intergroup interactions between individuals. In the case of the former, two hypothetical individuals’ interactions are governed purely by personal interests, whereas in the case of the latter, they are governed by their particular group memberships. In reality, these distinctions are not entirely mutually exclusive, but are at opposing ends of a spectrum.

Tajfel further claimed that individuals would approach relationships with members of other groups at an interpersonal level, that is as individuals, if group boundaries were relatively porous and fluid. If a group’s boundaries are porous, it will allow outsiders to join or leave the group, even if only temporarily (Tajfel refers to this as ‘social mobility’). If a group’s boundaries are fluid, group members are able to influence the defining characteristics of the group (Tajfel calls this ‘social change’). If a group is neither porous nor fluid, then its members will tend to interact with people outside the group at an intergroup level, that is, as representatives of their respective groups. Intergroup behavior would predominate in contexts were group boundaries were relatively fixed and impermeable. And similar to the interpersonal/intergroup continuum, the social mobility/change dynamic also represents a spectrum along which specific group dynamics exist.

Another component of Tajfel’s formulation of social identity theory was the postulation of ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ designations as a social mechanism for preserving distinctions between groups. Such a distinction is particularly helpful if the two groups are in outright conflict with each other, but is also beneficial if one of them perceives itself as possessing a lower social status than the other. In situations like these, Tajfel proposed a series of ‘social creativity’ strategies that a group could deploy in an effort to improve its social location (assuming its members were unable simply to leave the outgroup and join the ingroup). First, it could simply minimize the differences between itself and the ingroup, even to the extent of erasing them entirely and assimilating into the ingroup. Second, a group with negative social identity can also reinterpret in positive ways the features distinguishing it from the ingroup. Finally, the outgroup can also formulate new characteristics that can elevate the social identity of its members to a higher level.

Self-Categorization Theory

In the years since Tajfel first outlined social identity theory in detail, social psychologists have enthusiastically adopted his general framework while also extending it in a variety of fruitful directions. The earliest, and perhaps the most consequential, of these directions has been the work of John Turner, who was one of Tajfel’s early students and research collaborators. While social identity theory was Tajfel’s attempt to explain how groups and their members interacted with each other, Turner wanted to answer a more fundamental problem: how do individuals come to perceive themselves as a member of a particular group in the first place?

Central to Turner’s framework is the concept of depersonalization, which he defines as “the process of ‘self-stereotyping’ whereby people come to perceive themselves more as the interchangeable exemplars of a social category than as unique personalities defined by their individual differences from others.”[3] Yet Turner is quick to distinguish this from the more widely known process of de-individuation, which is what happens when an individual loses his or her sense of self when in a particular type of group setting. De-individuation, therefore, is the outright loss of personal identity. When depersonalization occurs, however, personal identity is actually enlarged in order to incorporate the additional information provided by an individual’s association with corresponding social elements from cultural and society.

In order for depersonalization to occur, Turner postulates two specific preconditions that must be met. First, a group of individuals must actually perceive or define themselves in relation to a shared characteristic. The resulting ingroup category has a greater likelihood of indexing a social identity if group members perceive differences between them to be less than differences between others outside the group. Second, in order for a particular ingroup categorization to become salient in a given circumstance, it must demonstrate some combination of ‘relative accessibility’ and ‘fit’ between the stimulus and the category. In other words, for a categorization to be salient it must either require relatively little input in order to be activated, or it must demonstrate a high degree of fit with the perceived stimulus.[4]

Finally, Turner theorized that when depersonalization takes place, forces of attraction between group members can produce three related group phenomena: group cohesion, interpersonal attraction, and ethnocentrism. The basic principle undergirding these phenomena is that “people are identified positively to the degree that they are perceived as prototypical of the self-category in terms of which they are being compared.”[5] When group members manifest a high degree of shared prototypicality, then the positive identification associated with the self-category of the group produces cohesion among its members. The higher the shared prototypicality, the greater the cohesion within the group. In other words, shared mutual attraction – or a generalized sense of affection spread among group members – will hold the group together.

Similarly, forces of attraction can be observed at the individual level; individuals who exhibit high levels of prototypicality will be perceived by group members as more attractive when compared to less prototypical members. This attractiveness is not absolute and unchanging, however, but is a function of the makeup of the ingroup itself, the group self-categorizations involved in the interpersonal comparison, as well as the specific individuals that are the subject of the comparison.[6]

Finally, the forces of attraction can also be observed at a macro-level in the phenomenon of ethnocentrism. This happens when a particular ingroup is perceived by its members as exhibiting a high degree of prototypicality with respect to its defining self-category. In these circumstances, individual members may extend the principle of attraction to the group itself. In the case of ethnocentrism, the attractiveness of the group itself is a function of dynamics similar to those involved in interpersonal attraction, but abstracted to the level of the group. Indeed, Turner points out that ethnocentrism and group cohesion are two sides of the same coin. The latter refers to “ingroup members’ mutual attraction on the basis of the value of shared ingroup membership,” while the former refers to “the value of the ingroup perceived by members in comparison with outgroups.”[7]

More Developments

One of the first things that becomes apparent when exploring the concept of social identity within the field of social psychology is the possibility of multiple layers, or facets, of our social selves. Indeed, numerous studies have recently explored how group members who share a relatively broad social identity nonetheless exhibit remarkable differences that are sufficiently salient to constitute sub-identities in their own right. [Important Sidenote: This is what makes social identity theory relevant to theorizing secondary gender identities.]

In this regard, Zoë Richards and Miles Hewstone published an important study in 2001 in which they explored the important difference between subtypes and subgroups as it related to the issue of stereotype change.[8] Specifically, individuals are subtyped when they are perceived as disconfirming a group’s organizing self-categorization. Richards and Hewstone point to the role of typicality in determining those group members who will be sectioned off and isolated cognitively in order to preserve the shape of the superordinate group. Subgroups, on the other hand, are formed when members of a superordinate group are differentiated into neutral subcategories based on individual similarities and differences. Richards and Hewstone note that superordinate groups sometimes resort to subtyping members who disconfirm the group’s self-category in order to preserve a stereotype. Conversely, stereotypes are decreased when members are instead prompted to form subgroups instead of subtypes.

A similar study about different kinds of subgroups was published by Matthew Hornsey and Michael Hogg in 2003.[9] They noticed that subgroups that resided entirely within a single superordinate group sometimes behaved differently when compared to subgroups comprised of members from both inside and outside the superordinate group. Hornsey and Hogg label the former type as a “nested” subgroup, and designate the latter type as a “cross-cutting” subgroup. They further observed two conflicting sets of benefits. First, they noticed that encouraging subgroups to perceive themselves as nested enables the superordinate group self-category to completely contextualize the self-categorization of the subgroup, thus enhancing the superordinate status of the larger group (e.g. Italian American). At the same time, they also note that this can backfire in superordinate groups that contain clear ingroup and outgroup subgroups. In these cases, if both subgroup identities are nested within the superordinate group, there is nowhere to go if one subgroup becomes dominant and tries to influence the shape of the superordinate group. If the subgroups are cross-cutting, however, the shape of the subgroup identity does not ultimately depend on the superordinate group.[10]

Another important study published by Amélie Mummendey and Michael Wenzel explored intragroup dynamics within a superordinate group that contains more than one subgroup.[11] They discovered that when one subgroup becomes dominant within a superordinate group, it may in some environments project its own self-categorizations onto the superordinate group identity. This effectually marginalizes other subgroups by transforming them into subtypes. In these situations, highlighting in-common, superordinate group identity may not be an effective strategy for improving subgroup relations.

Finally, a much more recent study by Anna Rabinovich and Thomas Morton explored the related issue of how subgroup identities affected the likelihood of superordinate group cooperation in especially large social groups.[12] They noted evidence from self-categorization theory and the Common Ingroup Identity Model that suggests “intergroup cooperation can be promoted by encouraging individuals to categorize themselves as members of a single superordinate category rather than as members of difference subordinate categories (subgroups).”[13] Yet they go on to note evidence that “activating increasingly higher-order identities does not always lead to comparable shifts in identification with the salient group… because large groups can be overly inclusive, and thus fail to simultaneously provide their members with crucial feelings of distinctiveness.”[14] After conducting their research, Rabinovich and Morton conclude that “activating subordinate identities… resulted in stronger intentions to contribute to the resource shared by the superordinate group.” They are quick to point out, however, that “subordinate identity was activated within the framework of the superordinate group.” This leads them to suggest that clarity of the self was a dominant factor in motivating superordinate group cooperation.[15] This finding would seem to operate in harmony with the

Gender and Social Identity Theory

As a social category, sex differences (maleness and femaleness) have long been recognized as a primary axis of self-categorization in early childhood. In a recent volume on the development of the social self, for example, psychologists Barbara David, Diana Grace, and Michelle Ryan outline a self-categorization theory approach to understanding the development of primary gender identity. They point out, however, that “correctly applying the label for one’s biological sex… only answers the opening question [“Who am I?”] in part for, without a meaning, a label is a long way from being an identity.”[16] In their chapter, they use self-categorization theory to provide an account of how gender socialization, or the process wherein sex differences gain social meaning, takes place.

But societies go a step further when it comes to gender and socialization. A number of studies in the field of social psychology explore the processes involved in the formation of gender subtypes and subgroups.[17] In terms of social identity theory, this would suggest that within the superordinate social identities ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are a vast number of secondary social identities that are essentially gendered. For example, a 2003 study by Roos Vonk and Richard Ashmore explored the cognitive organization of over 200 female and male gender types along several dimensions: feminine-masculine, traditional-modern, chosen-given, settled-free (mother, eternal bachelor), and old-young.

The point I’m trying to make here is that if gender identity as a theological category – being a man or a woman – contains a social identity component, and if individual cultures further socialize men and women into subgroup and subtype social identities – such as soccer mom, diva, jock, family man – then it might be fruitful to theorize these subgroups and subtypes in properly theological terms, that is, as secondary gender identities. Two considerations in particular suggest that this might be both helpful and important. First, viewing ethnosexual particularity through the lens of SIT provides us with a means to maintain the essential priority of primary sex difference as a normative system of individual classification. Secondary gender identities reflect the social significance of specific categories of individuals within the superordinate social groups of ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ Second, viewing ethnosexual particularity through the lens of SIT highlights how the salience of certain instances of particularity is contingent upon specific social situations and contexts, that is, upon concrete communities.

Concluding Reflections

Given these two considerations, let me conclude with a brief discussion of possible secondary gender identities drawn from two vastly different cultural contexts. In the social world of the first century, a variety of social structures operated both to support unmarried women, as well as to control access to their sexuality. This suggests that female marriageability was a culturally salient form of ethnosexual particularity that was especially valued. The primary label used to index young, unmarried female identity was the Hebrew word ‘almah and the Greek word parthenos. We usually use the English word “virgin” to translate both terms. Similarly, the related Hebrew word ‘almanah, as well as the Greek word chēra index elderly, unmarried female identity, words which we usually translate into English as “widow.”

Two texts in particular in the New Testament shed light on the social identity of virgins and widows in the early Church. In 1 Cor. 7, the apostle Paul provides the church at Corinth with specific instructions regarding unmarried men and women, including widows and female virgins. A variety of lexical and syntactical ambiguities, however, render the meaning of Paul’s instructions somewhat vague. For example, Paul applies “unmarriedness” descriptively (ho agamos) to both men and women (v. 8, 11, 32, 34), but also refers explicitly to female virgins and widows. In other words, Paul addresses unmarried individuals collectively, at the superordinate level, before focusing on specific secondary gender identities nested within the subgroup of unmarried women.

An additional subclassification might be indicated in v. 36, depending on the precise meaning of the Greek word hyperakmos. If it is a chronological reference, it could refer either to a woman of marriageable age (i.e. past the onset of puberty) or to a post-menopausal woman (i.e. past her childbearing years). Alternatively, it could be a descriptive reference to excessive sexual passions, which could in turn refer to either the hypothetical man or his virgin.

A second text that highlights unmarried female sexuality is found in 1 Tim. 5, where Paul provides Timothy with specific instructions regarding the treatment of widows. First, Paul redraws the boundaries of “widowness” by referring to widows who are “truly widows,” that is, that they are truly alone, presumably having no living family members (5:3, 5, 16). Second, Paul’s use of paraenesis to set up ethical boundaries around widowhood suggests that he wants widows to interpret their unmarried sexuality as a nested subgroup identity that lies entirely within the context of their superordinate Christian identity. Third, Paul quite clearly sets up an ingroup-outgroup dynamic between older and younger widows in this text.

For my second example, let’s skip ahead a few millennia to our modern society. In our current cultural context, sexual orientation is a uniquely salient form of ethnosexual particularity that circumscribes certain kinds of masculine and feminine identities. In social identity terms, men and women who have non-heterosexual orientations form a subset of individuals within the superordinate group of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ In other words, ‘gayness’ is perceived in our culture as a salient form of ethnosexual particularity (and not simply homosexual behavior of one variety or another). But this leads to an intriguing question (the same question John Turner asked): Why?

To answer this question, we have to examine what happens when a group of individuals in a culture actually perceive or define themselves with respect to their shared ‘gayness.’ First, individuals whose experience is characterized by ‘gayness’ must identify in some way with other individuals in the same culture whose experience is also characterized by similar ‘gayness.’ This is particularly likely to happen when individuals perceive their shared ‘gayness’ as relatively significant when compared to whatever differences may also exist between them. At this point, it is worth noting that individual LGB social identity need not be expressed in the form of external membership within a concrete group. Indeed, a closeted LGB individual may still perceive himself or herself in terms of some kind of an LGB social identity, no matter how rudimentary his or her understanding of this identity might be.

But merely perceiving oneself in terms of a self-category is only the first step of depersonalization. In order for a social identity to be fully realized, the self-categorization must become salient. And remember, a self-categorization becomes salient when 1) it is relatively accessible, 2) there is a high degree of fit between the self-categorization and a particular set of stimuli, or 3) some combination of the two. In the case of contemporary LGB identities, a wide variety of conditions in our culture contribute to the relative accessibility and ‘fittedness’ of LGB particularity as a self-categorization. On the one hand, our morally lax and highly sexualized culture provides plenty of sad occasions for LGB particularity to become salient. On the other hand, the forces of heteronormativity both outside and inside the Church have also increased the salience of LGB particularity by maligning and marginalizing LGB individuals. In social identity terms, heteronormativity consigns LGB men and women to subtype status – as opposed to subgroup – because they disconfirm a particularly dominant self-categorization of superordinate gender identity (i.e. that to be a man or woman is to be straight).

When it comes to LGBT issues, Christians have tended to emphasize correct doctrine and holy behavior. This is for good reason, as doctrine and holiness surely matter. But it is also possible that these things have been so emphasized that we have neglected other fruitful discussions about sexuality, particularly the need to devise a properly theological account of how our experiences, including our sexuality, shape certain aspects of our gender identity. For example, restricting LGB particularity to behavioral terms has had the unfortunate effect of watering down the significance of ‘gayness’ as it relates to the social identity of non-straight individuals. As long as non-straight Christians aren’t having gay sex, we think, then they are really no different from everybody else. ‘Gayness’ then becomes the particularity that dare not speak its name. [Sidenote: Social psychologists refer to this as intersectional invisibility, when people who occupy the overlapping space within two intersecting social groups are sometimes disregarded by both groups.]

In order to advance this discussion, I propose a four-part path forward. First, we need to examine ways we’ve been complicit in allowing heteronormativity to establish straightness as indexing an ingroup identity, and gayness an outgroup one. This tendency is manifest in many segments of evangelical Christianity that regard non-straight people as existing entirely outside the Church, and it betrays the implicit assumption that the only holy sexuality is heterosexuality. [Sidenote: The idea of sanctified non-straightness was the subject of a great series of papers and panel discussion yesterday afternoon about sexual orientation.]

Second, we must explore ways in which evangelicals can dialogue about LGB issues can emphasize a commitment to treating LGB individuals as a subgroup, instead of a subtype, of men and women. This means recognizing the signs of a two-tier gender hierarchy not between men and women but between straight men and women and gay men and women. If prototypical masculinity and femininity is framed with reference to heterosexual ideals, then all who disconfirm straight stereotypes will be subtyped into an inferior

Third, we can steal a page from the apostle Paul’s playbook and urge LGB individuals who also follow Christ to think of themselves as a nested subgroup within a superordinate Christian identity, rather than a larger cross-cutting subgroup that merely intersects with Christian identity. Two related benefits result from this move. First, it exposes all aspects of the subgroup LGB identity to the influence of the superordinate Christian identity, and promotes the greatest degree of self-clarity, including the new creation self. Second, and more specifically, it requires non-straight Christians to interpret the aspects of their vocation that stem from their LGB experience through the lens of the Christian moral vision.

Finally, some of you might at this point realize that the scenario I’m recommending resembles a situation described in one of the studies I just summarized. Remember, nested subgroups within a superordinate group that are, or can be, characterized by a strong ingroup/outgroup dynamic are susceptible to specific struggles related to leadership and influence. If one of the groups gains more influence at the superordinate level, members of the other group might begin to feel threatened because they can’t go anywhere else, because remember, they’re a nested subgroup. So, if we ask non-straight Christians to locate their LGB identity exclusively within the sphere of a superordinate Christian identity, we need to be intentional about two things, which are really the same thing, but expressed both negatively and positively. First, we need to become conscious of the ways we project the self-categorizations of straightness onto superordinate Christian identity. Second, we need to value and promote the perspectives of non-straight Christians in the developmental process of construing faithful Christian identity in our culture.

The Church is certainly facing a unique challenge today when it comes to LGBT issues. My hope is that we can all learn to recognize the various identities we embody by virtue of the unique experiences that characterize each of our lives, and that we can then learn how to assume a posture of love and service towards those within the body of Christ who are different from us.


[1]Henri Tajfel et al., “Social Categorization and Intergroup Behavior,” in European Journal of Social Psychology 1, no. 2 (1971): 149-178.

[2]Henri Tajfel, “Social Categorization, Social Identity and Social Comparison,” in Differentiation between Social Groups, ed. Henri Tajfel, European Monographs in Social Psychology (London: Academic, 1978), 63 (emphasis original).

[3]John Turner (et al), Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 50.

[4]Ibid., 51-56.

[5]Ibid., 57.

[6]Ibid., 60.

[7]Ibid., 61-62.

[8]Zoë Richards and Miles Hewstone, “Subtyping and Subgrouping: Processes for the Prevention and Promotion of Stereotype Change,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 5, no. 1 (2001), 52-73.

[9]Matthew J. Hornsey and Michael A. Hogg, “Assimilation and Diversity: An Integrative Model of Subgroup Relations,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 4, no. 2 (2000): 143-156.

[10]Ibid., 150-151.

[11]Amélie Mumendey and Michael Wenzel, “Social Discrimination and Tolerance in Intergroup Relations: Reactions to Intergroup Difference,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 3, no. 2 (1999): 168-9.

[12]Anna Rabinovich and Thomas A. Morton, “Subgroup Identities as a Key to Cooperation Within Large Social Groups,” in British Journal of Social Psychology 50 (2011), 36-51.

[13]Ibid., 38.


[15]Ibid., 47.

[16]Barbara David, Diana Grace, and Michelle K. Ryan, “The Gender Wars: A Self-Categorization Theory Perspective on the Development of Gender Identity,” in The Development of the Self, edited by Mark Bennett and Fabio Sani (New York: Psychology Press, 2004), 135.

[17]Deaux and LaFrance, 1998, provides a helpful review of the literature up until the turn of the millennium.