Friday, July 22, 2016

Transgender Kids and the Church - A Perspective for Youth and Family Ministry

I recently had the opportunity to write about Rebekah's story for the most recent issue of the Connect Journal, a quarterly publication of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network. The Network is a rich resource for those who work with children, youth, and families in the church. I was blessed to spend time serving on their Board of Directors as well as the event team for their annual event, Extravaganza. I highly encourage you to check out their site and offerings. Membership to the network includes a subscription to the Connect Journal along with a host of other benefits. They were kind enough to grant permission for me to run the article here on my blog as well. It's a little longer than what I usually publish here. For those of you who have followed our story, Rebekah's story is not new, but this is shared with the hope of raising awareness, starting a conversation, and calling our churches and faith-based organizations to consider how they do ministry for and with transgender children and youth.
 
THE STORY OF REBEKAH (SO FAR) 

Rebekah is an excellent student with a deep love of learning. She's a passionate writer and reader. She is adored by classmates and teachers. Singing and dancing bring her joy. She's articulate and wise beyond her years. She loves to climb mountains, rock hop down streams and swim in waterfalls. She is strong and her heart is bigger than any of us can handle at times. She is a beloved child of God. She is nine years old, and she is transgender.

 http://elcaymnet.org/connectI strongly believe that our stories, the stories of who we are, where we come from, and the way we interact with the world deeply matter.  With the recent explosion of transgender issues in the media, people know more than they have ever before but there are also more questions than ever before. If you're not transgender, the idea of being transgender is confusing. It's okay to say that. It’s important to say that.

I cannot speak to the transgender experience. I was born biologically female, and I have never in my life felt anything but female. Even while playing sports, refusing to wear a dress, and muddily stomping through the woods, I knew I was a girl. I don't understand what my daughter feels, but I don't have to understand it to support her. As beloved children of God, we are one. We are one body in Christ. When we claim our stories, tell our stories, and hear each other’s stories we are better able to enter into community with all God’s children and care for each member of the body. My daughter is transgender, and she is okay.

Some might say Rebekah was a born a boy, but that's not entirely accurate. She's always been the person she is now. She was assigned male at birth, meaning that when she was born everyone took a look at her genitals and assumed she was a boy. It turns out we were wrong. Over the years, our daughter was drawn to all things typically feminine. Her favorite color was pink. She loved to paint her nails and play dress up. Her closest friends were girls. We learned there was a name for this; she was gender non-conforming. We assured her that colors and clothes are for everyone and that she could be any kind of boy she wanted to be. But she wasn't a boy, she was a girl. After years of insistent, consistent, and persistent behavior and self-identification she socially transitioned at age eight and has been living as her affirmed gender since April 2015.

In the nine months prior to her social transition, Rebekah struggled. She went through an intense period of depression and her previously mild anxiety became crippling. At seven years old, she was a danger to herself and others. I don’t know what to do with that, even having lived through it and come out the other side. Seven is so little. Her pain and struggle were so deep. I have never been so scared in my life. We lived in crisis mode; all joy had gone. Our only goal on any given day was keeping us all safe. Through counseling, nutritional therapy, a wonderfully supportive doctor, and a deep trust in our kid, we were able to peel back the layers until we were left with the core issue of her identity, an issue she didn’t even realize was at the core until we sat there together staring at it.

When I used to explain that my young child struggled with anxiety and depression people were shocked and skeptical. What did she have to be stressed about? We are bombarded with messages about today’s youth and their idleness, irresponsibility, and self-centeredness. Struggling young people are labeled manipulative, defiant, or dismissed as looking for attention.  

As adults who work with young people, I hope and pray that we think better of them than society. I hope and pray that we see these Children of God for who they are and know that, like everyone else, they are born broken and also made perfect in God’s love. Cultivating a deep respect and awareness for a child’s own self-understanding is at the core of what we do in youth ministry. If we cannot respect these young people as called, claimed, and sent Children of God, then we cannot minister to and with them. We must be prepared to truly listen in order to initiate and respond to conversations about anything in their lives, including gender and sexuality.

A few months before Rebekah officially transitioned by going by a new name and declaring her gender to our community, she tentatively explored how people would respond. That exploration started with us, her immediate family. Her little brother did the best job of listening and responding with trust and compassion. Excited for a birthday outing with two close friends, both female, she chatted with him. “There is going to be three girls and three boys at the playdate today! Trinity, Sophie, and I will each be there with our little brothers.” Rebekah had never asserted herself as a girl prior to this point despite her consistent gender non-conformity. Elijah paused. Rebekah could see that he was doing the math and added “because I’m a girl”. Elijah didn’t flinch. He responded matter-of-factly, “No, you’re a boy.” Rebekah reasserted herself, “No, I’m a girl.” Elijah didn’t miss a beat. He said, “Oh, you’re a girl?” Rebekah affirmed, “Yes, I’m a girl.” Then Elijah said, “Oh, you didn’t tell me before so I didn’t know. Now I know.” That was it. Elijah, with the wisdom of a six year old, understood the situation clearly. 

Still, some people ask, “how can such a young child be transgender, what do they know about sexuality?” Pretty much nothing, thankfully! This is not about sexuality. Gender and sexuality are different. Rebekah knows her gender. The simplest description I've heard is that gender is “who you go to bed as” while sexuality is “who you to go bed with”. Gender is about who you are as a person and has nothing to do with who you find attractive. While sexual orientation emerges somewhere near adolescence, gender identity is generally established between the ages of two and five. 

Other concerned adults wonder about the life altering decisions transgender children and teens are making. It’s important to know that medical treatment and transition is a process that doesn’t start until puberty at its earliest, spans many years, and is not irreversible until the later stages. These are challenging decisions families and youth are making, but these are also lifesaving treatments they are seeking. My husband is pastor in an area not known its diversity or progressivism. One member, a bit of a walking stereotype when it comes to traditional gender roles, pulled my husband aside the first day Rebekah came to church as herself. He said, “You know, before, she never talked to me. She looked at the ground and hid behind your wife whenever she could. Today, she bounced up to me with the biggest smile, twirled around in her dress, and we had a real conversation. That says it all, doesn’t it?” Yes, transitioning to live as one’s affirmed gender is life altering. It’s the most life affirming thing I’ve ever seen someone experience. 

There's a lot we don't know or understand about gender identity. My family is living into this in the most authentic and supportive way we know. We have spent hours reading the available literature, consulting with top notch medical professionals, and connecting with others who have gone before us on this road. We are grateful to see a wonderful team of professionals in the Gender Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

On our most recent visit, the psychologist spent some time talking to Rebekah before connecting with us. The psychologist explained that when talking to Rebekah, she had asked if Rebekah had ever had to explain what it means to be transgender to someone who just didn't understand. Rebekah's initial answer was no, a huge testament to the overwhelming support we have received. The psychologist pressed on wanting to know how Rebekah might respond if that did happen. In relaying the story to us, the psychologist paused to wipe away tears, “Your daughter’s answer took my breath away. She said that being transgender is being who God made her to be.” Rebekah knows exactly what it means to be transgender.

As we deal with the everyday elements of a young transgender person’s life - church, camp, youth group, school, and even dance class - there are always questions about what this means in practice. What bathroom does she use? Where will she change? What about lock-ins, room assignments, or cabins at camp? I understand these questions, and we navigate them as they come. All current research points to the importance of transgender youth being allowed to access the facilities and programs of their affirmed gender for their physical and emotional well-being.

There will be uncomfortable conversations and situations as we, in the Church, work to provide a safe place for all, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Most importantly, the Church is called to act in love and compassion, working towards justice for the least of us. There is no “but” that follows that sentence. Our response cannot be that we affirm your gender, but you can’t use the bathroom where you feel safest. It cannot be that we welcome you as a Child of God, but you can sleep with the chaperones because you don’t fit anywhere else. We cannot say that we will walk on this journey alongside you, but we have to make sure no one else feels uncomfortable. I’m not dismissing the legitimacy of logistical questions, but we are the Church. We must strive to be a refuge of love and grace in a world filled with hate and fear, and we do that not just with our words but with our actions. 

Being transgender is just one small piece of who my daughter is, so much so that I sometimes forget it entirely. She’s just Rebekah, a little girl full of life, love, and all the sass a nine year old can muster. Sometimes I want to believe that this transgender thing, this label, doesn’t matter, but other days I’m forced to remember that it does matter. I remember that simply because of her identity, she is at much greater risk for violence, bullying, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and homelessness. I remember that there are people who think she shouldn’t be allowed to go to the bathroom safely. I remember that we keep a “safe folder” full of documents proving Rebekah’s gender identity, medical care, and general good health to protect her and us in the very real likelihood that someone calls Child Protective Services with claims of abuse and negligence.

There are people who have never met my daughter and already hate her. There are churches who would not welcome my family or my husband as pastor. I have to remember that every time she makes a new friend, I will need to carefully judge when and if I have a conversation with the parents about my child’s genitals. I’m reminded of the difficult and expensive medical decisions that lie ahead. My heart aches knowing that Rebekah’s journey has been far less challenging than many other transgender youth because she has a supportive family and community. And then, she bounces into my office so I can put her hair into a bun for ballet class where she is just one of the girls.

Written By Jamie Bruesehoff. Originally published in the Connect Journal of Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Summer 2016 issue) published by the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.

2 comments:

  1. This is beautiful. The Church seems to be five steps ahead of classical Judaism. I am grateful Rebekah has it and you.

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  2. Thank you for this grace-filled gift of your experience. I have always thought of myself as supportive of the trans community, but I have not explored the experience of being trans as a child, and this is so eye-opening. It seems like in some ways there are benefits to discovering one's gender identity early (particularly the fact that one is most likely to discover one's gender identity in a supportive and unconditionally loving home), but in some ways there are some strong, unique challenges to discovering a gender identity that might be in conflict with gender assigned at birth. What can churches do to extend the loving home environment you have provided to Rebekah so that children growing in the faith know that they are beloved children of God and that gender, which we know exists on a spectrum with many manifestations as shown in scripture as well as in scientific literature, is a dimension of identity and not a reason to discriminate?

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