Jennifer Fitz, the Patheos blogger behind “Sticking the Corners,” recently wrote a piece called “Transgender Children: What is a Christian Parent to Do?” She added a disclaimer asking that people like me let this one slide:
Closing comments because this is an exquisitely sensitive subject, and I don’t want my readers (of any persuasion or opinion) to be attacked in the combox. If you find it helpful, super. If it’s not helpful, please keep looking around, and quietly decline to share this one.
I respect Jennifer’s decision to close comments for this particular piece, and I hope my response does not come across as attacking her, but I’d like to point out a couple of things she’s missed.
With the exception of tried-and-true-and-trained experts, the only people qualified to tell Christian parents how to raise transgender children are Christian parents with transgender children. I fit exactly zero of these descriptors, so I’m not qualified to tell Christian parents what to do, either. What I can do, though, is consult those who actually know more about this than I do.
First, let’s get one thing cleared up: Christianity and LGBT identity/family members do not have to be mutually exclusive. (Personally, I don’t see the appeal of being LGBT and churchgoing, but it works for some people.) One of my favorite bloggers, PFLAG Mom of Tumblr, writes a lot about her trans son. She identifies as Jewish, but her husband is Catholic. She says that when she asked him how he reconciled his faith with having a trans child, “he rolled his eyes — there is nothing on earth or in heaven that could affect his love and respect for our child.”
Her site lists a whole slew of churches and religious organizations that are inclusive and accepting of LGBT people and their families, and there are tons of others beyond those she’s identified. If it’s being shunned by Christianity that you’re worried about, there are alternatives.
All that aside, I’m concerned that much of Jennifer’s advice suggests pushing kids in the opposite direction of the interests and preferences they’ve outwardly expressed. For example, here’s how she reads kids who look up to people of other genders:
For all the lip service we give to “being yourself”, our culture can be as dreadful a straightjacket as any other. If you don’t fit the bland sports-n-stuff “boy” mold, people assume you’re gay. If you don’t fit the hyper-sexualized “girl” mold, people assume you’re a prude…
In the same way, it’s possible for a girl to identify most with her father and brothers, or a boy to identify most with his mother and sisters, for simple lack of a same-gender role model who resonates. If you don’t fit in with all the guys or all the girls, and you do seem to fit in well with the “wrong” gender friends and family around you, it’s easy to have a passing thought of, “I should have been born a ________.”
Obviously, identifying with a different-sex role model doesn’t mean you’re trans, and it’s perfectly normal for kids to play with toys “meant for” kids of another gender, etc etc. (A child who says “I should have been born a ______” may well be trans, but more on that later.) But these things are also not bad and don’t need fixing. Jennifer doesn’t seem to agree:
Again, the response is not to panic or to read more into the situation than is warranted. Instead, look for ways to respond to the real need your child has to spend time and build friendships with “people like me.” The cure for a boy who likes too many “girl-hobbies” isn’t to shame him into forced-football; it’s to find a friend who is both comfortable in his masculinity and also takes an interest in the same kinds of endeavors. Many pursuits that we think of as being “girl things” or “boy things” during childhood turn into gender-neutral occupations later in life, even if they are more often pursued by one sex or the other.
To me, this says that it’s only okay for boys to like “girl-hobbies” if the boys are masculine or otherwise assert their manliness. This isn’t a “cure” any more than forced football — it’s another way of telling a kid that he’s doing something wrong. It sends a painful, lasting message — especially if the child does eventually announce that they are trans (or gay).
It’s crucial to validate kids’ experiences and identities (and those of adults, for that matter). Jennifer suggests that some gender nonconforming behaviors are “not actually a sex thing” and that children can misspeak when describing themselves and their preferences:
She wants to be a boy scout not a girl scout — it turns out the boys are going on more interesting trips, and she has a taste for action and adventure. He’s more comfortable with the girls than with the boys — turns out he doesn’t like being shoved around by the brutes in his class. All her best friends are boys — turns out she’s the only girl in her advanced math group, so she sits with boys most of the day.
None of these are gender issues, not at all. To treat them as “gender problems” would be to create a new problem without solving the real problem.
Sometimes they aren’t, but sometimes they are. For an excellent example of how to be a good parent about this I point to Amelia, a Huffington Post blogger who writes at length about her gay 9-year-old. Amelia’s son made clear his preference for boys years ago, and his parents have gone above and beyond to support him and stick up for him when others try to put him down.
I imagine some will suggest that nine years old is “too early” to know you’re gay, and that Amelia’s kid will “change his mind” one day. (The vast majority of people don’t, but nonetheless.) She hears that a lot, too. But why should his age matter? Shouldn’t a parent’s love be unconditional, even if kids change their self-identifiers as often as their clothes? If your son played with dolls, would you defend him more forcefully if he called himself straight than if he were gay? Here’s what Amelia has to say about it:
I get how unusual it is to see such a young child identifying as gay. Although I hear from other parents with young gay children in grade school, I am still the only mom writing about it (something that can be a challenge of its own for my husband and me). But for most people who know my kid, he is the only gay elementary-school-aged child they have ever heard of, and it doesn’t sit well with them. To a lot of straight people, being gay is all about sex, and sex isn’t what they want to be thinking about with a third-grader.
Another part of me gets really tired of having this conversation. I don’t get why people worry about it. Our kid is who he is. And who he is is never going to change. Sure, he might come to me tomorrow and tell me that he has a crush on a girl. I would be really surprised if he did, but it could happen. But that wouldn’t change who he is. He’d still be my son. He’d still be the kid who would rather play basketball than do schoolwork. He’d still be the kid who acts like I am killing him when we decide to have a “no screens” day. It’s my job as his mom to parent who he is today. And today he identifies as gay.
When it comes to kids who know and affirm that they are transgender — as opposed to those who are simply gender nonconforming — Jennifer says the only answer is chastity:
All children need, at the appropriate point in their education and under their parents’ supervision, to be told how to respond to these kinds of problems. Self-hatred is never the solution. Chastity is the rule for all — there are no special exceptions.
Telling your trans kid that they must be chaste forever is pushing self-hatred on them. It’s a cruel and immoral “solution” that does nothing but alienate and ostracize the person in a way that can have detrimental effects for the rest of their life. What’s weird to me is that Jennifer seems to realize that being LGBT — and especially LGBT and from a religious background — can be traumatizing for some people:
Disorders of sexual arousal happen. I won’t theorize on the causes, and for practical purposes the causes don’t much matter. Because, I joke around a little here, relax, please allow me to be purely hypothetical, a pickle-fetish isn’t a “thing” in modern America (okay, maybe it is, I don’t want to know), if your child has a deep seated tendency to get aroused at the smell of pickle relish, you’ll probably never find out. He’ll just feel like a freak and keep his mouth shut. More important to know: Certain disorders of arousal are so openly despised that if your child experiences one, he may well hate himself.
Let’s not even start with how messed up and hurtful it is to “hypothetically” compare an LGBT identity to a pickle fetish. LGBT identities are only “despised” by those extreme conservatives who call them “disorders,” as Jennifer just has. Lots of us in the world are okay with them, actually. If Jennifer wants LGBT kids not to experience “self-hatred,” why does she suggest further telling kids that they are different, they are messed up, and they must be “fixed”?
Here’s her last bit of advice:
It’s important to both recognize the difficulties that may arise, and at the same time not make too big a thing of it. If you aren’t attracted to people of the opposite sex, perhaps marriage is not your vocation. You aren’t exactly alone in lacking such a vocation, and God will make the most of the wonderful person that is you regardless of your state in life. But the fact that you struggle with this powerful and difficult-to-quell sexual desire or inner conflict does not define you. It’s a thing you have to deal with, but it’s not you.
Again, yes, there may be difficulties that arise when you come out as LGBT. But they’re not because of an intrinsic “disorder” — they’re because of the toxic environment created by people who hold that belief. The “thing you have to deal with” isn’t stifling your identity (or your child’s) — it’s finding people who accept that identity. They exist. Some of them are even Christians.
Now we come back to our central question: How should Christian parents respond to children who might be trans? Neither of us can say. But for an informed answer, turn to other parents, regardless of religious beliefs, who have done it well. (They’re out there, and many of them would love to talk about it!)
Take note of these parents’ acceptance, tolerance, and unconditional love — principles that many would say align with Christian beliefs. If it’s difficult for you to incorporate these into your relationship with your child, it’s time to reevaluate — your parenting might not be so Christian after all.
(Image via Shutterstock)