Two articles by New Direction staff members were published in the February edition of the Christian Educators Journal. We wanted to reprint the articles here for those who haven’t had an opportunity to review the journal.
The first article can be found here. The second, by Wendy Gritter, raises some of the unique realities our gender non-conforming youth may experience in school.
Navigating Transgender Journeys
What role ought teachers and the school community play when a student expresses significant gender confusion? This is one of the most complex questions facing educators in the midst of clashing cultures. North American culture is continuing to erase the gender binary chalking up masculinity and femininity to mere social construction. Most Christian communities, while varying significantly in their descriptions of manhood and womanhood, still value the complementary nature of male and female. Into this milieu the transgender, gender fluid, or genderqueer student struggles to understand their own sense of self and navigate the minefield of expectations regarding their gender expression.
Transgender students, those whose internal sense of gender conflicts with their physical body, have more access to the narratives of young trans people than ever before. And while parents and teachers may still be trying to understand the distinctions between cross-dressing, self-expression, and the early stages of gender transition, students watch YouTube clips of those who began transition in primary school. The transgender student experiences themselves to be a girl despite a male body or to be a boy despite a female body. They are articulating this reality at younger ages and, often for the sake of the mental health of the child, parents are increasingly supporting their child in expressing their sense of gender identity. A student as early as kindergarten may begin using a different name and wearing clothes that match their sense of gender.
If binary transgender realities are hard to wrap your mind around, then gender fluid and genderqueer may be even more confusing. The emergence of individuals refusing to be limited to a binary expression of gender is becoming more mainstream. Some of these individuals may be intersex, where there is biological ambiguity regarding sex assignment, and the freedom to not be forced into a gender category is important for them to live authentic lives. Many intersex individuals affected at the hormonal or chromosomal level may go through life without being diagnosed. Others, who are not intersex, yet resist a specific gender expression, may experience emotional and psychological relief by transcending the gender binary.
If our Christians schools are places where students trust they will be accepted by their teachers and feel safe to be honest about their internal dilemmas, whatever they may be, then if you haven’t already encountered gender non-conforming students you can expect to do so in the coming years. This raises questions: Is this a good thing? Aren’t we just encouraging confusion by making space for that kind of expression? What if the parents oppose the student’s self-expression? What does the bible say?
Many Christians that speak to me about transgender realities assume that to mess with the connection of biological sex and gender identity is sinful. I hear statements like, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” And certainly for the majority of people who are cisgender (body and gender match up), it is very hard to relate to the need to transition (presenting and living as the gender one experiences themselves to be). I have heard people say that transgender people are “selfish”, “vain or prideful”, “perverse and deviant” as just a few examples. Public profile of people like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and the TLC program, “I am Jazz” have elicited some horrifying comments from those who identify as Christian. There can be a sense of revulsion that seems more energized by anxiety and insecurity than purity and holiness.
When asked what the bible says about transgender realities, John Piper, co-author of “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”, indicated that there was no clear textual guidance on this contemporary matter. This is not to say that Piper supports transgender people transitioning. He does not. But it does highlight that if someone who so prioritizes the complementary nature of male and female, and is an astute student of scripture, claims no specific textual correlation we ought to pay attention. Certainly people will quote Deut. 22:5, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” But if even Piper does not utilize this as a text that speaks to the reality of transgender people today, then perhaps we can accept that passage as being in a specific cultural and historical context.
So if we don’t have a specific proof text providing a clear answer to whether or not it is appropriate for a Christian to undergo a gender transition, how do we discern how to journey with a transgender or gender non-conforming student?
- Understand that no one chooses to be transgender. Most transgender people, particularly those who confess faith in Christ, have begged God to take away this pervasive dissonance they experience. Even before they are able to articulate what this reality is, transgender children experience significant distress. One mother found her four year old child with scissors preparing to cut their penis off. Other parents talk about very young children expressing the desire to die. Even with public opinion beginning to shift, being transgender puts one at great risk for violence, discrimination, and exclusion.
- Coercion of gender conforming behaviors will do more harm than good. For many years the psychological and medical communities have been experimenting with and trying to better understand how gender identity develops. Given the prevailing insistence that gender is socialized, the one in 200 infants whose sex is not immediately discernable at birth were often “fixed” to fit a specific category. Longitudinal research demonstrated that there was something a lot deeper than socialization affecting an individual’s sense of gender and where the “fix” got it wrong, the individual suffered a great deal of distress. In the classroom context, persistent redirection to gender conforming expectations can impart shame and contribute to a sense of self-loathing.
- Keep lines of communication open and develop trust with the parents. Teachers may encounter very different responses from parents. In some cases, the parents may be more accepting or encouraging of atypical gender expression than the teacher is. Despite any personal discomfort or uncertainty, the teacher’s response should be consistent with the parents’. The teacher may benefit from speaking with a transgender Christian to increase their own understanding. To connect online, begin with http://lisasalazar.com/. In other cases, the parents may be very clear that they do not want to encourage any gender non-conforming behavior. The teacher may experience some inner tension, particularly if they see their student in distress. The teacher can regularly communicate their observations and their recommendations to the parents. In their relationship with the student, invite the student to describe some of their experiences, and give that student the opportunity to be heard without a sense of judgment.
- Be an advocate for gender non-conforming students. Follow the student’s lead regarding the language they choose to describe themselves and pay special attention to pronoun usage. Check if your own language is predominantly gendered or gender-neutral. Do you say “students” or “boys and girls”? Highlight gender equity in roles and professions. Focus on the humanity of transgender individuals who end up in the headlines. Reinforce respectful language when transgender people are discussed. In your zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying, be intentional to name gender-based bullying as a matter to pay careful attention to. Consider your own gender presentation and find ways to challenge rigid expectations. Do you always wear dresses? Do you never wear pastel colours? Be attuned to the students who seem to struggle in this area and regularly remind them that your door is open.
- Recognize that gender and sexuality are distinct parts of our personhood. Clearly, there is some connection given that sexual attraction is often directed towards a specific gender. However, it is important to understand that students who may be wrestling with their gender identity do not need the extra burden of people assuming things about their sexual orientation. Many transgender people put their sexuality on the back burner until they are at a place of equilibrium and stability in their gender identity. Others may be clear about the direction of their attractions but still understand their sexual orientation as quite distinct from their gender identity. One transgender Christian, post-transition male to female, shared their dating dilemma with me: “If I date a man, Christians will just assume I was always gay – which they view as sinful. If I date a women, Christians will label me a lesbian – which they view as sinful. No matter who I date, Christians will disapprove.”
- Assist students in addressing shame. Transgender students in Christian communities are particularly vulnerable to shame. They may be in contexts that differentiate sexual orientation and sexual behavior with the individual not being culpable for the former. But being transgender isn’t about a specific behavior to avoid. One either lives in distress, presenting as their biological sex but not the gender they experience, or one transitions and lives in alignment with their gender. Students experience shame if they don’t transition and if they do transition. Shame says, “I am wrong. I am a mistake. I cannot be loved by God.” We do not have a full picture of why some people are transgender. But we do know that it is deeply hard-wired. Our students need to know that they are God’s Beloved child. They need to know that the cross is as efficacious for them as for any other human being. They need to be reminded that their righteousness is found in Christ alone.
Transgender students need to learn how to cultivate hopefulness given the challenges they will inevitably face. Three things can help us to stay hopeful. First, we need safe places to grieve our losses. Transgender students may need to grieve that their journey seems much harder than that of their peers. They may need to grieve that finding a life-partner or forming a family may be much more challenging for them. They may need to grieve disruption in relationships with parents, extended family, or peers. Second, transgender students can be encouraged to be receptive to beauty. Beauty, wonder, the transcendent lifts our spirits and reminds us of the goodness of our God. The spiritual practice of pausing, taking intentional time in nature, listening to music, creating art, or physical activity – anything that connects you to the beauty our Creator offers is an important rhythm in the midst of struggle. Finally, you can help transgender students cultivate a positive vision for the future. They are loved by God. They have and are developing spiritual gifts that will empower them to make a difference in the world. God sets the lonely in families – and there are many options in front of them to ensure their need for companionship, intimacy, and family is met. Their story matters and there may be incredible opportunities to share it and influence others’ responses to transgender people. They are developing resilience and strength that will serve them throughout their whole life. They are an inspiration to those who feel they do not fit in for any reason.
The reality of students navigating complex questions around gender identity is not going to go away, and will likely only increase. It is incumbent upon the administration and staff of Christian schools to have constructive, open, and courageous conversations about how they can journey with transgender students. This conversation can then be enlarged to include parents. But these matters also need to be addressed within the student body, in age appropriate ways, to ensure that our schools are safe and supportive environments. When these conversations happen, even though they may seem challenging and risky, it communicates to all students that our God is big enough and loving enough to engage our complex questions. May it be that our Christian schools celebrate transgender alumni who embody vibrant Christian faith and influence the gender dialogue such that it recognizes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28