There are three sexes

Well, that’s what Anglican wit Sydney Smith (1771-1845) thought, quoting our neighbours across the channel: ‘As the French say, there are three sexes – men, women and clergymen.’

Smith himself was of French descent, but of Protestant stock. He was also a clergyman, but a married man. The saying presumably arose because French clergy were mainly Roman Catholic and celibate – both by dress and sexual abstinence they transcended/transgressed male gender expectations.

According to Keith Tiller, in the latest episode of, the Bible says that there are just two sexes, male and female, and that they are complimentary. Neither statement stacks up.

The early chapters of Genesis certainly talk about male and female as aspects of both God and human beings, but it is highly simplistic to suggest that a modern gender binary, let alone the notion of complimentarity, can be found in the text.

On the contrary, from start to finish the Bible is an incredibly cross-gendered book: it begins with Adam, who is humankind, and therefore both genders, who then gives birth, as women do, to Eve, or ‘living one’, but in Adam’s case from a hole in his side, just as later, in the gospel of John, the church is born from the wound in the side of Jesus, the new Adam.

The Bible is the book in which a patriarchal nation, Israel, is consistently referred to as the female consort to its ‘male’ God; the book in which Jacob’s son Joseph prances around in a ‘princess dress’ – yes, that’s what Joseph’s coloured coat actually was, so now we know the real reason why his macho brothers were so averse and keen to be rid of him; but then Joseph turns up again in Egypt, where (even though he is said to marry and have children) he behaves like a court official or eunuch. The Bible is also full of eunuchs: mediators and reconcilers one and all – mid-way between male and female, God and human kind; dreamers, like Joseph and Daniel, who can interpret dreams. One of the earliest Christian converts is a eunuch (Acts 8:26-end).

Just two genders in the Bible? I don’t think so. And no more is this true in nature, as the incidence of intersex people testifies.

As for the suggestion that the Bible advocates the complimentarity of men and women, the beginnings of the notion can be found in Scripture, but it was a long time coming. Indeed the very verse that Keith quoted at the end of his interview, and that prevented him from transitioning, Deuteronomy 22:5, is a classic bit of male oppression. Unusually for the Bible it begins with the woman rather than the man:

‘A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment.’

In the Hebrew the male garments that the woman must not assume include armour so this is an attempt to keep women at home, a restraining order against strong female leaders, which Israel had, of course, in plenty – think only of Judith. The long drawn out process by which the Church of England is moving towards accepting women as bishops shows that women in leadership is still an issue of gender today.

As to the meaning of the second half of the verse, well, it’s certainly a call to ‘man up’. And after years of struggling with cross-gender feelings and behaviour Keith did just that. It worked for him, but that’s not to say it will work for other trans people, in fact, the evidence is quite the reverse, as Keith is well aware.

Sydney Smith, tongue-in-cheek, said that there were three sexes, and in the Bible there are at least three – men, women and eunuchs – and probably more besides.

Not convinced? Time you saw the show Transfigurations by my dear friend Peterson Toscano.



  1. Laurence C says

    I was disappointed that the 2011 Census form only allowed ‘male’ and ‘female’ as responses to the gender question. A free-format field to describe other identities/realities would have been helpful.

  2. Christina Beardsley says

    What you suggest would have been much better Laurence. What was offered only goes to show how persistent the gender binary still is. Interestingly, though, one of the personal questions was ‘gender neutral’ to an extent when it asked about the relationship between person 1 and 2 – e.g. ‘is person 2 the husband or wife of person 1?’

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