Gender Identity in Youth Ministry
In the past several years, some expectant parents have begun hosting “gender reveal parties” in lieu of—or in addition to—traditional baby showers. Seeking to answer the frequently asked question during a pregnancy (is it a boy or girl?), couples devise a clever way to reveal the sex of their infant through an eventual display of either pink (for a girl) or blue (for a boy). Going forward, the parents make decisions that center on this part of their baby’s identity—its name, its clothes, its toys, and often unconsciously, its everything else. While the parties may be new, the categorization and its effects are not—from disparities in rights, health, wealth, opportunity, access, safety, and more. The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements shine a sobering light upon these realities, and our young people are watching closely.
Moreover, many young people reject the either/or gender question altogether, insisting on a diversity of human experience beyond the binary of girl or boy, pink or blue. Terms such as gender-fluid, agender, and gender non-conforming are becoming standard ways that young people understand and identify their genders. While the terminology might be new, the necessity of transcending gender categorization is not, as most theologians can attest. In this issue of Engage, scholars, ministers, parents, and advocates help us understand gender anew.
Who Will Carry Our Future?
There was once a town in the midst of a severe drought. Every day, a group of well-intentioned church-folk would walk up and down the steep road to the church in town and pray for rain. Every day, they would pass by the house of an old woman in town who, though she lived only 50 feet or so from the church, never went inside. Each day, as the church-folk walked by, she would pause whatever she was doing, look up at the group, shake her head, and return to her activity. This went on for several weeks, while the ground remained dry and cracked.
After some time, one of the well-meaning church-folk, fed up and frustrated by this woman’s judgment, stopped in front of her porch and hollered up to her. “Who are you to judge us?” She shouted. “At least we are doing something to try and bring rain! If you have better suggestions, please do let us know.”
The woman paused her sweeping and turned to the group. “I’ve seen you all walk up and down this hill for weeks now, each day you hold your head high, saying you are going to pray for rain, that you are sure God will answer. And yet, never once have I seen anyone carrying an umbrella.”
As anyone who is even tangentially connected with a mainline Protestant denomination can attest, conversations about the death or decline of the Church are part-and-parcel of the work we do. Sometimes it seems we gather together only to bang our heads against the wall in collective frustration. For some of us, the Church feels as dry as the hardened, cracked ground of a land too long in drought.
And yet, so often, we are neglecting the voices of those who will carry the future of the Church after we are gone. To say we forget our proverbial umbrellas is an understatement; it is more like we have forgotten what rain ever felt like. We know young people are going to church in smaller and smaller numbers, but we seem reticent to stop and listen to those same people about why the Church doesn’t feel like home to them.
A 2015 study of 1,000 youth from around the country showed that half of them do not see gender identity on a binary of male and female. Another study showed that 12% of people aged 18-34 do not identify as cisgender (cisgender—a term referring to someone whose gender identity correlates to the sex they were assigned at birth). Young people today are asking questions around their gender identity in ways we have seen people ask questions around their sexual orientation over the last 40 years.
These statistics are often glossed over—or even outright denied—by the same well-intentioned church-folks who are simultaneously desperate to understand why millennials don’t want to come to church. Yet, given the ways in which the assumption of a binary gender identity has been so fundamental to the history of not only our society but of Western Christianity as a whole, anyone working with young people in the Church would benefit from time spent digging into this social construct.
Young people’s understanding of gender beyond a binary presents a seismic shift to the way we understand identity and, by extension, community and theology. The fact that our churches play a different role in our daily life than they have over the last 50 years compounds the impact of this shift on faith communities. If a young person finds church as a place where they are constantly questioned about their identity; or as a place where they have to defend their use of the singular “they” as a gender pronoun; or as a place where worship is only inclusive of brothers and sisters and pays no mind to a young person’s non-binary sibling, youth will simply opt out of going to church.
Often, when young people share the questions they are asking about their gender, they are told they are either too young to understand their own identity or that their questions are merely indicative of “a phase” they will certainly move through. It’s important to acknowledge that the (sometimes harsh) responses young people get in response to disclosing questions about their gender have more to do with the lack of self-examination done by the adults on the other side of these conversations than they do with the youth.
For people working with youth in the Church, or people who are committed to investing in the future of the Church, it is essential that we trust young people when they say who they are. This means respecting the pronouns young people use, even if those pronouns are unfamiliar to us. It is also important that we examine how our faith traditions and society have impacted the ways that we understand our own identity. If you’ve never asked yourself to seriously consider what it means to be a man or woman, or neither (or both!), and how our culture places expectations and norms on what it means to be a man or woman, or neither (or both!), I would encourage you to do so. Additionally, spend some time examining the ways in which some of the Bible’s most celebrated characters defied the gender norms of their cultures (i.e., Deborah, Ruth, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Jesus, to name a few).
Early in the Church’s history, as the empire’s grasp tightened on the message presented in the life and witness of Jesus, those who refused to be part of a Church that served primarily to further the Emperor’s agenda fled to the desert. They knew the Church wasn’t living into its potential to be the living, breathing presence of God on Earth. Similarly, 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church as an act of protest against the ways in which the Church had gone astray; again, failing to live into its potential.
I see a similar parallel with young people today. Their understanding of gender beyond a binary is one way they are showing the Church that our rigidness around identity and our refusal to examine our own assumptions are some of the ways we are failing to live into our potential as the Church.
I worked with a number of remarkable young people during my time as Youth Programs Director at Side by Side. Shortly after coming out, one of these young people, who identifies as agender (agender—a term meaning their gender identity does not align with a particular gender), went looking for resources online to connect with other agender people. Seeing that there were no resources online, this young person started a YouTube channel which now has over 325,000 subscribers. I’ve seen this again and again—young people who see the gaps in the world around them and then fill in those gaps themselves. In thinking about the story of the church-folks in the drought, these youth not only carried umbrellas, but they worked the ground to such an extent that, by the time the rain fell, the seeds they planted had already come to life.
We would do well to learn from their example.
Jess Cook is a candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is the Program and Communications Manager for More Light Presbyterians. A native of East Texas and lifelong Presbyterian, Jess holds a Master of Divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary, a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of North Texas, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art from Baylor University.
Prior to joining MLP, Jess was the Youth Programs Director at Side by Side, an organization in Richmond, Virginia serving LGBTQ+ youth. While at Side by Side, Jess worked with hundreds of young people through support groups, a leadership program, and various programs in the community. They created a parent support group and a meals program, and trained a wide variety of faith community leaders and service providers on best practices for working with LGBTQ+ youth.
Jess’s call is to help facilitate spaces where reconciliation is possible, with the acknowledgement that reconciliation is only possible if we are able to be honest with ourselves and one another about the ways in which we are broken. True reconciliation requires relationships, and relationships require trust and vulnerability. Jess sees their role as helping make spaces where that vulnerability is celebrated and trust can be built.
Jess loves poetry, liturgy, sharing meals, and pretty much any conversation about the ways we see the Spirit come to life in the world. They live in Richmond with their lively toddler, dog, and cat. Check out Jess’s TEDx Talk on what faith communities can learn from spaces dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth for more.
“But, She Answered Him” Mk 7: 28: Change and Accountability
It is impossible to go 24 hours without seeing a new post, article, or image related to gender issues—from the #MeToo Movement to International Women’s Day, from equal pay to reproductive health access, from transgender bathroom access to domestic violence related gun deaths. Yet, how many congregations have recently addressed these issues? Many congregations avoid difficult discussions of gender and its close relative, sexuality. How might we make the connection between concrete gender issues and the theological, liturgical, and biblical aspects of Christianity in our churches?
Most churches take an approach known as gender equity—making sure things are fair within different social roles. However, such an approach cements gender differences into binaries. In other words, “[t]his understanding risks perpetuating unequal gender relations and solidifying gender stereotypes that are detrimental.” On the other hand, gender disparity focuses on how people of different genders have various levels of “access to resources, status and well-being” usually favoring men and “are often institutionalised through law, justice, and social norms.” The favoring of men rests on culturally specific notions of masculinity that most men do not fit. Thus, gender disparity harms men and boys as well.
The second approach requires we assess gaps based on gender and figure out what is needed to remedy them. For example, the question isn’t what jobs should women have? but why isn’t a woman paid the same as a man in the same job? Why do girls lack access to education and freedom from the perceived threat and direct experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault? Everyone deserves education and safety. When gender-specific responses are necessary (all-girls schooling, women’s empowerment, Title IX), they are not “extra” or “special.” They are necessary to balance out gender-specific discrimination.
When the Syrophoencian woman comes to Jesus to heal her daughter, she is facing many levels of structural injustice, like gender discrimination, poverty, ethnic otherness, and second-class status in her own religious tradition. It seems like Jesus doesn’t care; he dismisses the woman. “But, she answered him” (v. 28). She is the only person in the gospels to correct Jesus. She insists he change his mind, and with one metaphorical twist (dogs under the table), she calls out his ethnic judgements, gender bias, and religious purity. “But, she answered him.” And Jesus is changed in the encounter.
For decades, womanist and feminist theologians have “answered him.” They teach us that gender disparity in leadership, programming, practices, language, imagery, approach to sacred text and awareness of interpreters of the text deeply impact the theological lives and imagination of Christian believers. They have also shown how gender is linked to discrimination based on race, class, age, ability, education, and so on. In order to respond to gender disparity in our churches, we need to be able to see its concrete forms and “answer” for it. I suggest we invite our high schoolers to conduct an audit, so that they can see the direct impact of gender on theological approach and worship life of their faith community.
Sample Gender Audit for a Congregation:
- How diverse is the leadership in your congregation? Are women at the same level paid the same as the men? Are the trustees mostly male and the teachers mostly women? How diverse are the bodies children see in leadership? Are they all the same shape, age, and race? Are separate and unequal roles justified with theological teachings?
- What kind of God language is used? Does it include various genders and natural images that are found across Scripture, or is it predominantly male? What about references to human beings? Does “man” mean human? Do you say women and men, sisters and brothers (in that order), or do men always come first? What about non-gender binary language like friends, people of God, or saints to refer to the diversity of believers?
- What images are prevalent? Are they mostly male? How are the women depicted?
- What gender practices govern behavior like clothing expectations (including written policy for the youth group), or bathroom options? Who leads the training about sexual abuse and harassment prevention and is everyone in the congregation trained? #TimesUp is everyone’s responsibility!
- What kind of gender-bias is represented in programs? If there is a women’s ministry, is there a men’s ministry? Who sets and cleans-up coffee hour or potluck meals? Do we repeat the stereotypes of the Marys and the Marthas? What gender-specific ideas shape programming for children—like boys want to run and play games while girls want to sit and talk about feelings? Are behavior expectations the same or do we think “boys will be boys” (read: rude and rambunctious)?
- What Scriptures are chosen? Do male biblical figures get prime attention in preaching and Sunday school? Are uncomfortable texts that address rape, multiple wives or concubines, and sacrifice of daughters avoided? Do you use these texts to discuss opposition to sexual violence and harm against women and girls? Are women characterized as extras in Jesus’ ministry and the early Church, or are they considered important figures? What is the gender, race, and ethnicity of the theologians who are cited in sermons, read in study groups, or taught in Sunday school?
- What else would you add?
The Mark passage is a model for two things that must happen as we address various gender issues in our congregations and society. First, we must disrupt people’s understandings of gender difference (as well as difference among races, classes, education-levels, abilities, and so on) as justification for discrimination. And second, we have to hold them and our institutions accountable to change—real concrete change. If we have faith like the Syrophoencian woman, we are called to confront discrimination and demand change.
Dr. Kate Ott is Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. Her work addresses formation of moral communities with specializations in sexuality, technology, children/youth, and professional ethics. She is author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, co-editor of Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation, and the forthcoming Christian Ethics and Digital Literacy: The Technology and Ethics of Everyday Living.To find out more about her work visit www.kateott.org.
What Is It Like To Be Transgender and Follow Jesus?
“What is it like to be transgender and follow Jesus?” That’s the question I was asking myself at a recent Why Christian Conference I attended at Duke University. I must admit, I know very little about the transgender community. I grew up in the heart of the Midwest—small town, Indiana—where there are males, females, a few tomboys, and even fewer dudes-who-act-like-girls. “Transgender” was rarely, if ever, discussed. I decided this lecture would stretch me the most, and so I sat in on Austen Hartke’s breakout session, “The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.”
The room was almost full by the time I arrived. There were a few seats front and center, perfect for a curious pastor in a foreign setting. I began people-watching almost immediately and couldn’t help but wonder how many people came to this lecture out of curiosity, like me, and how many because they identify as transgender. My estimate: about 50/50. After a few minutes of pretending that I was familiar in any way with the content we were about to discuss, the lecture began. I found myself on the edge of my seat, impressed by Austen’s care and concern for Scripture and the people present.
Austen began with an introduction, he provided his name and his pronouns—he/him/his. Austen appeared young and nervous, but there was a confidence and an eagerness in his presence. He took time to define transgender and even shared part of his story of “transformation” from female to male. Austen was intelligent, gracious, and direct, which was incredibly helpful for an ignorant Midwesterner like me doing all I could do to keep up with the conversation. Austen spent most of his time walking through Scripture, specifically those texts that have been weaponized against the transgender community and texts that the transgender community has strongly identified with. He maintained a non-anxious presence as he graciously walked through each slide; offering a glimpse into a hermeneutic of a transgender follower of Jesus.
At some point the question occurred to me, “What if God—through God’s infinite foresight and wisdom—provided a home in Scripture for the transgender community to reside?”
Every Christian community I have ever belonged to has attempted, for better or worse, to use Scripture as a guide to their understanding of God and how they should live in light of God’s Word. Most people make massive strides forward when they begin to see themselves in scripture. Consider the first time you realized that, say, you may have denied Jesus like Peter. Or when you realized you’ve run from God’s call like Jonah. Or, maybe even when you felt compelled to share the good news of God with a friend, just like Mary and Mary after they witnessed an empty tomb. It’s a powerful experience to see yourself in Scripture.
It’s hard to see yourself in Scripture when people have told you that God and the Bible condemn your very presence, your being, your essence. So, what if God provided enough in the creation account, the prophets, and the New Testament for the transgender community to see themselves in scripture?
By the end of the lecture, a sanctified smirk settled across my face—a look set aside for moments in life when God surprises me in the most subtle of ways. I still have all sorts of questions about the transgender community. And Scripture, for that matter. A one hour lecture can’t answer everything.
But I left the lecture wondering, “Would God be so gracious to provide enough in Scripture to make a way forward for my transgender siblings to read God’s Word and walk faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus?”
Perhaps. It certainly seems like something God would do.
Rev. Joshua Rodriguez is serving as an Associate Pastor for Young Adults at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville Tennessee. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and of Indiana Wesleyan University. Josh has worked with youth and young adults in local churches for the last 12 years. He is married to Abigail, and they have two kids, Jameson and Everly.
An authentic theology of inclusion of all people must reach from the center to the farthest margin. The transgender (gender non-conforming/gender-variant) community is currently on the edge of the edge. Church and faith communities must seek to be sanctuary for members of the transgender community because much of society and religion has cast them off completely. This community of persons, who live their lives opposite of their gender assigned at birth or as a blend of genders, is among the least understood communities and is often subject to disdain. The treatment of transgender persons is an authentic example of culturally-acceptable gender bias. After a number of years working closely with the trans community, I believe that there are great lessons that faith communities can learn.
The trans community makes us tell the truth about the blurred gender lines that have always existed in our communities. In the African American faith community, where I grew up, we always had women and men who crossed the stereotypical gender roles within families, within church, and within community. Most people were not found on the extreme end of either traditional masculinity or femininity, but this was not something that any of us admitted or acknowledged. People found their way into roles that complemented their own internal gender identification. For some men and women, gender and sexual orientation came together in a stereotypical male or female package, but for many, there were points of identification on both sides of the gender line, and in their lives outside of church, many people crossed back and forth with great fluidity. Although the dominant social order seeks to define gender roles, the stereotypes are not realistic, nor are they consistent from society to society or culture to culture. Men are not from Mars; women, not from Venus.
There is something very God-like about the fluidity of gender in the trans community, as God is without gender limitations yet understands all of us completely. I was not surprised to learn that in many native cultures, transgender people are considered the most spiritual members of their communities, unfettered by gender limitations. The whole community is reflected in them. One of my transgender parishioners once said that transgender persons are very spiritual. They explained that they are a bit like angels—not gender limited, they are created as a true reflection of God.
Transgender persons have suffered enormous persecution and misunderstanding from both straight and same-gender-loving people. Leslie Feinberg, a female-to-male (FtM) transgender person, relates an experience where in an attempt to get a job, he borrowed a friend’s wig and “feminine” clothing for the interview. Feinberg said of the experience, “[t]he more I tried to wear clothing or styles considered appropriate for women, the more people believed I was a man trying to pass as a woman. I began to understand that I couldn’t conceal my gender expression.”
Transgender persons are often also not well respected in the same-gender-loving community and are frequently blamed for bringing undue attention to themselves and away from the issues of the same-gender-loving community.
The members of our transgender support group, Transcending, shared with me that most transgender persons do not feel welcomed in any church or in very few faith communities. Historically, churches tend to demonize what they do not understand, and this causes me to ask many questions when it comes to our transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming siblings. I have met with transgender and intersex groups enough to determine that this desire to be “other-gendered” is not a need to “act out.” Rather, it tends to be rooted in a deep sense of having been born in the wrong body, a self-awareness that is often realized at a very early age. A change in gender identification has led to enormous loss for many—loss of family, church, jobs/income, and health. We still have much to learn about gender fluidity, how it affects psychological well-being, and the possibilities of forming healthy communities.
In order to have genuine community, we must not assume that we understand everyone’s realities; instead, we must educate, inform, and equip the community to receive everyone. Our experience with the transgender members of our church and the Tenderloin transgender population has resulted in these findings: 1) Transgender persons are at great risk for substance abuse and HIV/AIDS; 2) Transgender persons are often procuring hormones on the black market and are not under the supervision of a medical professional; 3) Transgender persons are often discriminated against in employment and housing; 4) Transgender persons are often deeply in the closet; 5) Transgender persons are regularly victims of violence; and finally, 6) Transgender youth are often run out of their homes and schools.
In loving response to these challenges, churches and communities can be made safer and more inclusive by doing three things:
- Developing spiritual and practical support groups for transgender persons.
- Providing sensitivity workshops for the congregation/community (all age groups).
- Authentically involving transgender persons in various roles in the community.
Bishop Yvette Flunder is the Founder and Senior Pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ and serves as the Presiding Bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. A native San Franciscan, Bishop Flunder has ministered to her community for over 30 years, with a commitment to the radically inclusive love of Jesus Christ. Bishop Flunder is a trustee and adjunct professor at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and is an active voice for the Religion Council of the Human Rights Campaign, as well as for the National Black Justice Coalition. She is the author of Where the Edge Gathers: A Theology of Homiletic Radical Inclusion, and she is also known for her beautiful singing voice, made famous through her gospel recordings with Walter Hawkins and the Family, the City of Refuge Choir, and Chanticleer.
#BLM, #MeToo: Navigating Failure, Shame, and Hate with White Male Teenagers
I write four days after the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks for simply waiting on a friend, three weeks after the circulation of one of the latest videos of police shooting down an unarmed black man, this time in Texas in his grandparents’ backyard, and one day after the former director of the FBI said that the sitting President of the United States, “talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat.” The impact of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, as well as the enormities they protest, reverberate in our churches and youth groups. Yet how leaders and members of our congregations navigate, lead, and learn from these conversations depends on our various social locations, our gender, race, economic status, sexuality, ability, etc.
My focus here is on one specific group of identities that, I believe, might have a difficult time authentically entering such conversations: cis-gender, heterosexual-identifying, white young men. I say this because members of this group—both as teenagers and then later in early adulthood—have led the backlash against such movements. Whether this takes the form of contributing to a sub-reddit infamous for praising white nationalism, voting for a presidential candidate after his misogynist and racist comments were uncovered by the national media, or, more generally, growing up to join the group of what sociologist Michael Kimmel terms the Angry White Men: those who feel entitled to the American dream but feel it slipping away and blaming “gay men, immigrants, blacks, and women [who] are hardly the cause of their anguish.”1 Of course, not all white male teenagers participate in such backlash or grow up to be men who do so, and yet those of us who share this social location are implicated by it. Personally, I feel compelled to ensure my church members know that’s not me, and whenever I find residuals of racism or sexism in my thoughts or actions, I feel enormous shame. How are the white young men of our youth groups navigating similar fears and shame? Or, are we avoiding these difficult conversations altogether?
During a doctoral seminar, the discussion among my fellow graduate students had fallen on the different ways Black and white progressive churches talk about racial diversity in their own congregations. We talked about how white progressives so often lament the lack of diversity in their pews, while Black churches tend to enjoy the refuge provided by the Black community itself. One of my African American colleagues made this well-placed joke about the congregation of his youth. He said, his home church worshipped freely, and wasn’t always saying to itself, “Man, I wish there were more white people around.” In turn, I asked him if socio-economic status or class played a role in his congregation’s approach to diversity. Implied in my admittedly stupid question was the assumption that white progressive congregations concerned about the lack of diversity in their churches were of a higher class than the Black congregation of my colleague’s youth. Rightfully, a Black female scholar and colleague in the discussion pointed out this assumption with the incisive question, “What makes you think his congregation is low-class?” Shocked and ashamed at my own racist assumption, the way I had so casually collapsed Black skin with poverty, I found myself unable to respond; in fact, I was unable to speak in complete sentences for the remainder of that class.
Young white men are generally socialized into the idea that failure is not an option. Masculinity is built upon ideals of confidence, hardness, and success. As pastoral theologian Herbert Anderson puts it, “Real men, some still believe, hide feelings, talk tough, like football, keep distance, swallow tears, avoid dependence, ignore fear, and value action over thought.”3 So, when faced with failures like the one I recount above, young white men have limited options. They can hide their head in shame, or they can deny such shame, saying that their racism or sexism was not, in fact, wrong. The first option leads to isolation; the second to oppressive backlash.
So, I close with a question, or perhaps a challenge. Are there rituals or other avenues in our youth groups for white young men to confess their failures in a way that both calls out our sexist and racist tendencies but also allows room for change and growth? One of the reasons I have recounted my own racism across multiple mediums, and why I do so again here, is to normalize confession, to model a way of saying, ‘Yes, I have messed up, and I want to learn how to do better, to be better.’ Such conversations require vulnerability, accountability, and love. Might our youth groups become places where these conversations for white male teenagers can begin?
1. Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (New York: Nation Books, 2013), p. 14.
2. Richard Coble, “Struggling with our Racism: White Progressive Christians and Lacan.” Pastoral Psychology. Forthcoming.
3. Herbert Anderson, “Leaving the Door of the Soul Ajar: Rethinking Masculinity.” Word & World 36.1 (2016), p. 36.
Rev. Dr. Richard Coble is associate pastor of adult education and congregational care at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC and the author of The Chaplain’s Presence and Medical Power: Rethinking Loss in the Hospital System.
Our Shared Journey of Becoming
In an essay on seven things the Church can learn from trans people, theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott included the notion that our stories and experiences can “help to heal religious addictions to certainty.” Considering my own experiences as a non-binary trans person and a proud queer seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church, my unfolding journey has absolutely troubled my own reliance on certainty.
Throughout this journey, I have had to face a multitude of questions and insecurities. If I came out as queer and later also as trans, what would I lose—family, friends, vocation, safety? Should I carry on in an ordination process that may only ultimately reject me because of my identities? As a non-binary person, what will my transition look like?
These are just a few of the big questions that I had to get really comfortable with having no certain answers to. These challenges forced me to return to some of the most basic truths of my faith. A few of the basic claims that have seen me through my journey are: “God is love,” “you are not alone,” and “the truth will set you free.”
A lot has changed for me since I first started asking those big questions—I am “out” on all fronts, I am clergy, and I have settled into myself, transition-wise. I am also a lot more comfortable with the answer “I’m not sure” to most of the questions in my life. I have come to deeply appreciate what an important spiritual practice it is to settle into uncertainty, into multiple possibilities, and into total unknowing of what the future might hold.
When I first began my transition, there were not many public non-binary trans people I could look to for companionship, possibilities, or for guidance. I had no idea how my journey would unfold, and ultimately, that meant I had to do a lot of listening, both to myself and to God.
With time, I found this listening to be liberating and helpful. I didn’t feel pressure to conform to other non-binary people’s experiences or their expressions. Even now, I continue to learn more about myself as the days unfold, but none of this journey has been easy.
The truth is that we are all on this journey of becoming—individually, collectively, as churches, and as the Church.
The questions of gender and its entanglements with race, class, and sexuality shape so much of our lives and the world. These questions also shape a great deal of what we believe about God and about one another. We would all do well to spend more time becoming more comfortable with the inevitable “I’m not sure” that arises when we move deeply into each of these questions.
For white trans people: White supremacy has so deeply shaped the modern United States’ understanding of gender. How can we pursue liberation for trans people while ensuring we are not simply re-inscribing racism within and beyond our community?
For cis allies: What might you have to learn from trans people about your own gender and your own becoming?
For Christians: What if we understood the incarnation as God’s transition? What if God is transitioning over and over—taking on flesh in new and different ways to reveal God’s true self/selves to us? What if the Church is keeping God from their transition?
For all of us: Trans teens are still taking their lives; they are still believing they are not of value. Trans women of color are still being murdered. Trans people continue to be demonized by spiritual communities and by the public sector. What does hope look like, and how will we embody it?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but I am learning to trust that they will not be answered through desperate grasps at certainties. In the collective transitioning to a world and Church that is trans-affirming, we will need:
- To try on different answers and see how they feel and fit.
- To try on different language and to keep what works and let go of what doesn’t.
- To be willing to lose some hard things for the sake of what is true.
- To get it wrong, but then try again (and again).
- To learn from those who have gone before.
- To practice radical imagination and do things in entirely new ways.
- To always connect the individual with the whole.
As we do, there are some basic truths that do not make the challenges any less challenging, that do not make consequences any less painful, but that do offer some grounding. May we find our grounding instead by trusting that which never changes:
God is love.
You are not alone.
The truth will set you free.
Rev. M Barclay is the first openly non-binary trans person to be commissioned as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. They are currently serving as Director at enfleshed—a new ecumenical nonprofit committed to “bringing what matters back to the gospel for justice, liberation, and delight” through spiritual resources, pastoral care, and teaching on intersections of faith and justice. M formerly served as Director of Communications at Reconciling Ministries Network, advocating for queer and trans justice in the UMC. They have also enjoyed working as a hospital chaplain, youth director, and justice associate and faith coordinator for reproductive justice in Texas. As a queer and trans minister, M is passionate about writing, teaching, and preaching on finding the Sacred in the people, places, and ideas we might otherwise overlook.
A Parent’s Perspective
As a mother of two children, one cisgender and one gender fluid, I have had to learn a few things. I’ve learned that it is important to listen when my kids speak, and to listen well—not just with my ears, but also with my heart. I’ve learned that life is a journey that I take with them. It is not my role to dictate their path. Our role as parents is to be there for our kids, to discuss and to explore, but never to determine their fate.
When my child, who was assigned male at birth, cried when he realized he couldn’t get pregnant like his sister, when he held my wife’s face in his 3-year old hands and told her that it was fine for him to wear a skirt and not the shorts and collared shirt she had dressed him in, I had to re-visit and re-think my relationship with the Church. I had to strip away my prior understanding of the Church as arbiter of simple, moral absolutes in order to meet my child where he was and to love who he was at his core.
The Church is where our spiritual lives have been nurtured. We find the love of Jesus, yes. The promise of heaven, yes. Forgiveness of all sins through the sacrifice of Jesus, Son of God, yes. But these ideas are philosophical and can feel ethereal. While the Church attends to these things, 30% of trans youth report at least one suicide attempt, according to a recent study. Nearly 42% report a history of self-harm, while countless others report being bullied, targeted, and harassed. Trans youth need a Church that is invested in saving their lives even more than saving their souls.
For much of the LGBTQIA+ community, the Church has been a house of judgement, a house of exclusion. But what if the Church could be a haven, a safe physical space for them to be?When we allow that space for people to just be who they are, we create a place where people can begin to connect in authenticity. In my observation, young people tend to be so much more open and affirming than older generations. Discussions around gender identity and the journey of self-discovery are much more loose and open, free of the stigma and judgment that often comes with age. Instead of being left with confusion, fear, and depression, trans and gender non-binary youth could turn to the Church as that place where they can feel comfortable enough to ask the questions, to engage with their peers, and to simply be.
Once we have walked into the church doors, what now? How do we minister to these kids? How do we reach them?
My own journey of parental learning has shown me that we have to strip away the issue of gender identity and connect with the core of the person in front of us. We also must listen really hard. We must listen both with our ears and with our hearts in order to understand what each young person is saying. By doing this, we center our attention on the individual person’s journey of self-discovery, and we de-center the social construct of gender identity.
Truth be told, most of these young people do not have a problem with their gender identity; it is other people that do. Even kids who are in flux about defining identity are still quite clear about who they are. Their struggle in the world is because other people are trying to define them in a way that is not true to them and because the world judges them because of who they are.
Trans and gender non-binary youth, like all humans, want understanding. In order to gain that, they need a community around them who will listen without judgement. As much as the Church’s ministry is to help guide, we must also be willing to learn and grow. We as teachers and parents need to let go of our instilled social norms of what constitutes male or female. It’s as simple as updating our lexicon. In the trans community, pronouns count. Respecting the language is fundamental to showing respect to trans and gender non-binary youth. Even having the conversation about why some use they/them and some choose not to leads to understanding that individual—which is crucial to knowing how to be a mentor, pastor, or parent to them.
The journey of self-discovery is not linear, particularly for trans and gender non-binary people. A child can express their gender as female, and then decide to express as male, identify as neither, or choose to identify as one or both. Gender identity and expression can be as fluid as a rushing river, which I’ve experienced both in my own life and as a parent. Through it all, one has to simply stay in the flow. As a mentor, pastor, or parent, one has to go with this flow, and accept young person’s truth. While details may change, the fundamental human at the heart of the conversation remains the same. It is that person who we must guide, nurture, and strengthen as they go on their journey.
Trans and gender non-binary youth need people who are willing to take the journey with them. They need adults who will not only support them, listen to them, and love them; they need adults who are curious and who are willing to learn and grow on the journey with them. Life is not static, and neither can the Church be static. By showing trans and gender non-binary youth the love and mercy of Christ, the Church will be doing the most good for them, becoming a warm and safe home where they can flourish and grow.
Helen Mendoza is a writer/producer whose work includes the award-winning documentary, For the Bible Tells Me So. Released in 2007, the movie profiles five Christian families as it examines how conservative Christians’ interpretation of the Bible has been used as a weapon to deny homosexuals equal rights. The documentary Every Three Seconds was released in 2014 and examines how ordinary people can help solve extraordinary global issues by doing the simplest of things. She co-produced the short film “I’m Just Anneke” for the Youth and Gender Media Project, which aims to support educators, families, and youth who want to create inclusive communities by providing them with videos, curricula, and resources about gender-expansive youth. Helen is also a musician and vocalist, performing and producing for VOX FEMINA LOS ANGELES. Helen lives in Southern California with her family.
Gender History’s Comforts and Challenges
I grew up in a conservative Presbyterian church in southern Idaho, where I attended church and youth group every week. Ours was, I think, a typical youth group. Our time together consisted of games, devotional times, weird food challenges, and of course, all-nighters. Mixed-gender, overnight events were guided by a simple mantra: “Girls are pink. Boys are blue. We don’t want any purple.” It was a lighthearted way to discourage teenagers from taking advantage of the darkened church to act on crushes that had accumulated over summer campfires and winter retreats. The simplicity of this phrase, though, highlights the simplicity with which the Church often views gender and sexuality. For those who, like me, grew up believing this heterosexual binary1 was a self-evident and unchanging fact, today’s array of identities on an ever-expanding spectrum of gender expression and sexual preferences can feel disorienting. They seem so new, so unprecedented. Why, all of a sudden, are people acting differently and presenting themselves not as pink or blue, but as all kinds of shades of all kinds of colors?
Studying U.S. history has shown me that while this fluidity may feel sudden and unprecedented to many, it is actually not. People have always lived in ways bigger than the binary of man versus woman. For example, historian Peter Boag shows that even in the nineteenth century American West—that cultural reservoir of masculinity—gender expression was not so straightforward as John Wayne might have us believe. Men dressed as women, and women dressed as men, for reasons ranging from convenience to job opportunities to romance to identity. Indeed, Boag writes that “cross-dressers were not simply ubiquitous, but were very much a part of daily life on the frontier and in the West.”2 Since then, medical technology has changed the ways that people experience and transform their bodies in relation to their gender identities. Still, even before hormone injections or reassignment surgeries, people found myriad methods for living differently than the ways dictated by their gender assignment at birth.
This fluidity was not limited to gender expression. The way society defines homosexuality itself has changed over the course of the last century. In the early twentieth century, a man’s particular gender expression (his walk, talk, and dress—not who he had sex with) made him gay. Many working-class men who had sex with men, as long as they were in the so-called “active role,” regarded themselves as straight and normal, totally different from the “fairies” who adopted makeup, more feminine clothing, and a passive sexual role.3 The medical and psychological fields played an important role during this time period, using the term “invert” to identify homosexuality with non-normative gender expression. During World War II, homosexuality became less important as a medical category and more important as a legal and bureaucratic category. The U.S. military became deeply invested in detecting and punishing homosexuality among its ranks, and as historian Margot Canaday argues, this policing transformed its definition. It was difficult to police gender nonconformity and much simpler to track and punish sexual acts between men. In this process, homosexuality became about who one had sex with rather than gender expression or sexual role. When the military turned its attention to servicewomen, unsure of how to define sex between two women, it expanded the legal definition of homosexuality to include romantic relationships and not only sexual acts.4
Those who are shocked, confused, or disoriented by a world beyond pink and blue can be reassured, then, that while nonbinary gender expression and identities might be new to them, they are not new to the world. Similarly, youth who are questioning or exploring their own gender identities can be comforted by the stories of people who have asked and answered these questions before them. On the other hand, the way that homosexuality’s definition has changed over time challenges the timelessness that the Church has often ascribed to human sexuality and relationships. This history challenges us to ask, which of the social norms that we hold onto are God’s—perfect and eternal—and which are simply ours, and therefore deserving of thoughtful critique and transformation?
A few years ago, my childhood church went through a devastating split. Trust disintegrated and friendships ended as members decided that living according to their differing understandings of Scripture and “godly marriage” required that one congregation become two. The debates about marriage that led to this split reflected the congregation’s shared assumptions about gender: that it is straightforward, unchanging, and binary. But as people become more comfortable inhabiting cultural spaces of expression between and beyond masculine man and feminine woman, churches will have to wrestle with these questions in more complicated terms than traditional or gay marriage. We must seek to understand, build relationships with, and make space for trans and nonbinary people and their partners, or will have to justify refusing them that space. By looking to the past, we can unearth complex answers to questions about gender that both comfort and challenge us.
1. Binary refers to an either/or type of relationship in which you are either one thing (for example, a man) or the other thing (a woman).
2. Peter Boag, Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 2.
3. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
4. Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
Chelsea Chamberlain is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the Lilly Graduate Fellows’ eighth cohort. She received her Bachelor of Arts in history from Whitworth University in 2012 and a Masters of Arts in history from the University of Montana in 2015. Her research focuses on the history of mental, moral, and physical disabilities in the nineteenth and twentieth-century US.
- If someone were to ask you to define “gender,” what would you say?
- How does the way that we understand gender influence how we understand God?
- How does the way we understand our own gender influence how we understand God?
- Do you think there is a connection between our gender and our spirituality? Explain why or why not.
- How does our youth ministry talk about gender? How does our church?
- Many churches say that they value making people feel welcomed. What does “being welcomed” mean to you?
- How does gender affect the way that the Church lives out its mission?
- After reading the articles in this issue, what are new questions or understandings do you have about gender?