Dear new parents and grandparents,
Congratulations on your new little one! So precious is the gift of life from Creator God!
Maybe you’ve already had a big gender-reveal party after ultra-sound confirmation. And now that the baby is here, you might be enjoying buying little outfits in pink or blue respectively. Perhaps you’re already dreaming of special milestones with your little girl or little boy.
And if you’re a person of faith, you might have very specific ideas about what the Bible says about men and women and what that will mean for this little one.
I’m writing you today as a sibling in Christ. I’m writing as someone who ministers in a context that experiences and expresses gender outside of the typical expectations of many of our faith communities. And I’m writing to you in the hopes that my words might bring blessing to this little baby you love so much.
Gender can be a weighty thing. It isn’t just about body parts. It is about who you experience yourself to be. Many of us grew up in a time when societal expectations around gender were a lot more rigid than they are today. And maybe some of you, like myself, chafed at some of those restrictions. Inevitably, many of us got on with life and somehow found our place in the company of women or men, found a spouse of the opposite sex, and brought children into the world. Things were relatively clear. Some of us hid and suppressed certain things about ourselves that didn’t fit, but to the external gaze we were content and normal.
The desire for this kind of simplicity and clarity can be enticing. It can feel safe and manageable. But I’m just not sure that it is as honest, or authentic, or life-giving as your little one deserves.
It is true that the majority of people feel like their internal experience of gender matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth. And it is true that the majority of people experience attraction to the opposite sex. It is also true that a very real minority experience gender quite differently than their assigned sex at birth and/or may experience attraction to people other than only the opposite sex. We don’t really know why. It is probably a complex combination of factors attributable to both nature and nurture. What we do know is that there isn’t anything you can do to prevent or change the experiences of gender or sexual attraction that may arise within this little child as they develop and grow. No amount of positive reinforcement, pressure, or shame-inducing correction will ultimately change that deep internal sense of self from emerging. It will only serve to communicate to that child whether it is safe or unsafe to be themselves around you. Indeed, parents and grandparents are powerful sources of influence in a child’s life. This influence can’t determine gender identity or sexual orientation, but this influence can affect how a child feels about their experience of gender or sexual orientation.
Whether we like it or not, your precious little one will be growing up in a culture where things related to gender and sexuality are much more fluid. There is more freedom to express who you are in terms of gender than ever before. And there is more freedom to express who youm love than ever before.
Who you are and whom you love. These are deep, intimate, and powerful experiences. And whether your little one will find themselves in the majority or the minority in these experiences, their life is seen, known, and loved by God. They don’t need to hide from God. They don’t need to try to change who they are or whom they love to be in right relationship with God. God has made the relationship right through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Your precious little one IS beloved of God – and nothing can change that. Not gender, not sexual orientation …. nothing.
So, what can you do to raise this little one to be healthy and whole in these areas?
- First, don’t try to shelter your child. Clearly, discerning how to have age-appropriate conversations is important. But teaching your child how to ask good questions, how to think about differences in a respectful way, and how to show love and kindness to all is so much more valuable than trying to avoid difficult conversations. As they grow, your provision of accurate and factual sex education will equip them to navigate the foolishness of the playground with wisdom. In their own private reflections, as they begin to try to make sense of their experiences, the more you have taught them about the variety of ways people experience gender and sexuality, the less frightened or confused they will be. Information will not create a particular experience of gender or sexuality – information will help this child make meaning of their experiences.
- Second, it is ok to not have all the answers. You cannot predict what this child’s sense of gender or sexuality will be. You cannot anticipate what may or may not influence how they want to express themselves as they grow. You can do your best to provide positive environments in which they can learn and develop. You can do your best to introduce positive mentors and teachers. And you can encourage them to be wise in making friends. But you cannot control how their conception of God, their conception of themselves, or their conception of relationships will evolve. What you can do is encourage the development of virtues like courage, resilience, patience, kindness, and respect that will serve them well. Teaching them how to embrace mystery and faith by modelling it will give them invaluable tools when faced with questions they don’t yet have answers to. Knowing how to honour a child’s growing autonomy and agency is one of the most important prayers for discernment a parent can pray.
- Third, cultivate openness. Reflect on the assumptions you may carry into your language and decisions. You might want to practice using gender-neutral language. For example, when talking about the child’s future you could use the word “spouse” instead of “husband” or “wife.” (i.e. “When you grow up, if you get married I hope your spouse will love to travel as much as you do.”) When it comes to choosing activities for your child, before they’re able to express their own opinions, will you consider those that may be presumed to be gender non-conforming? Will you extend hospitality and friendship to a wide variety of people as your child grows – ensuring that they see and learn to relate to people who express themselves differently than you do?
- Fourth, educate yourself. As your child grows they will have unprecedented access to information including things you may not be aware of. Ensure that you have done some work to understand differences in experience of gender identity, including accessing the stories of transgender and non-binary people. Familiarize yourself with the sexuality spectrum beyond gay and straight – seek to understand what, for example, someone who identifies as pansexual experiences. As a person of faith, read widely, read different perspectives, challenge your assumptions, test your conclusions. You may end up holding to the same convictions you started with – but you will be that much more equipped for thoughtful conversation on the differences among Christians in response to the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality.
- Fifth, deal with your own baggage. Many of us were socialized to experience disgust regarding those who expressed differences from the majority in the arena of gender or sexuality. This disgust can be a cover for the anxiety, fear, or shame we feel about such intimate things. These deep visceral feelings were learned and can be unlearned. Do this work while your precious little one is young. It may be that your child grows up experiencing gender and sexuality like the majority. They will still look to you for cues on how to relate and respond to people who are different – and it is incumbent upon you to model respect, understanding, and kindness. And if your child grows up and experiences gender or sexuality with those in the minority, it will be essential that you are able to unreservedly express unconditional love. Learning how to relate to a reality that differs from your expectations can be challenging – but it can be done with practice and a commitment to love well.
Raising a child in our current cultural context, where gender and sexuality seem to no longer be governed by any discernable rules or regulations, can seem overwhelming. As someone who experiences the great blessing of relationship with many gender and sexual minority people, I can tell you that it is a wonderful adventure of encountering God in new and creative ways. The apostle John reminds us that perfect love drives out fear. As you gaze upon your beautiful little one, my prayer is that you will look to the future, whatever it may bring, with deep love and that you will practice bringing your fear to the foot of the cross. Your child may be a gender or sexual minority – and if that is the case – God will enfold you all in loving embrace. You will learn things about love you never imagined. You will dream new dreams and embody new hope. And you will know God’s presence in the midst of it all.
Again, congratulations. And may you know grace upon grace as you raise this little one!