In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.”-Luke 1:26-28
Today, American referee Kathryn Nesbitt is scheduled to assistant referee the England vs. Senegal Round of 16 game. She’s had a high profile this year as one of the six female referees officiating for the first time at the men’s World Cup.
The whole subject of female referees weighs me down. While I’m delighted to read about these female officials, I’m also chagrined by some of the media coverage that trumpets their uniqueness. I’m tired of celebrating women’s “firsts.”
I want to normalize female referees, not exceptionalize them. The paradox of women’s representation in historically male spaces is that a woman wants to be recognized for who she is as a woman and to be taken seriously as a human being, regardless of gender. This paradox exists for nonbinary people as well.
When I saw the first all-female referee team in a men’s World Cup game last week (Germany vs Costa Rica), my heart broke a little bit. I worried the tokenizing media coverage allowed FIFA to check a box of representation and claw back moral high ground without actually making systemic changes to respect and promote the many, many talented female referees in the game. My heart broke even more when I learned that Stephanie Frappart, the center ref, was also the first woman to officiate a women’s World Cup final in 2019. That is the year of our Lord 20-today-minus-three-years.
When the angel Gabriel (who is male because Greek is a gendered language) comes to Mary, it is not so much that God is recognizing her exceptionalism in spite of gender as that the male writers of history are. When Gabriel invites Mary into a clinch role in God’s salvation, I want to shout, “Yes! Her!” And I also want to shuffle on and say, “Of course, all genders, always, in God’s kingdom.” In our flurry to resolve gender discrimination in church, Mary sometimes becomes a prop for reinforcing gender bias. As if the whole Bible can be redeemed of its patriarchy if she carries it on her back.
What a thrill to be highly favored. And what a curse to be tokenized. No one should be impressed that FIFA is using baseline workplace nondiscrimination policy as proof of morality. In this Christmas season, let’s avoid Mary-as-proof-text-for-gender-equality, whether in sermons or music or Christmas party trivia about the FIFA World Cup.