For The Coalition for Youth Ministry Excellence
Digging Deeper on the Issue of Transgender People and Youth Ministry: A Quick Introduction
This cultural moment is fraught with issues regarding sex and sexuality. With that being the case, Youth Ministry is also fraught with those issues from kids figuring out who they are as they go through puberty, navigating relationships, LGBTQ2 issues for themselves or friends at school, and trying to teach what the Bible has to say about all of that. Not an easy task. One large issue that is gaining traction on being dealt with in the youth ministry context right now is homosexuality (gay and lesbian). This is good news - that it is being talked about and kids are getting support at church. But another pertinent issue that needs to be addressed is how to deal students in our ministries who feel they are transgender. This is very new territory for most youth pastors and pastors, and there is a lot of confusion that comes with this issue. This short paper will attempt to provide some information and clarification on the transgender issue by looking at the following three questions: What is transgender and the issues therein? What is the biblical perspective on this issue? How ought we, as leaders in the church (whether in youth ministry or other areas of leadership), walk alongside students struggling with questions of their identity?
Transgender is actually an umbrella term that covers a whole range of experiences and presentations, but to best describe the “umbrella”, transgender is when a person experiences an incongruence between who they are on the inside with who they are on the outside. In a thousand people, this can be expressed in a thousand unique ways. As Mark Yarhouse, a Christian psychologist and author puts it, “if you know one transgender person, you know one transgender person!” (Yarhouse 81). Under this umbrella, one person might simply not feel like they think they should as a man or a woman, another might dress and style their hair as the opposite sex, and yet another person might change their name and ask that you call them by different pronouns. Someone might be a male on the outside one day at work, but then go as a female the next. Yet another might seek hormone therapy or even sex reassignment surgery. Typically, transgender “refers to a biological female who identifies as a male (or vice versa), while nonbinary refers to a person who identifies as neither male nor female” (Sprinkle 30). Nonbinary identities, such as genderqueer, gender fluid, pangender, etc., are for those who don’t identify with either of the binary options of masculine or feminine experiences. To refer to all of these identifications of gender under one umbrella term, the correct term is trans* (with the asterisk). You can refer to the list of terms and definitions provided in the portfolio as a quick reference guide in the future.
Gender Dysphoria (formerly known as Gender Identity Disorder) is a psychological term used in both description and diagnosis for the “discomfort or distress related to an incongruence between an individual's gender identity and the gender assigned at birth” (American Psychological Association). By “gender assigned at birth”, they mean the biological sex that the baby was born with. The distress from gender dysphoria can range from mild to severe. Some of the descriptions of what this dysphoria feels like to trans* people are included in Sprinkle’s book, Embodied. They use phrases like, “a creepy serum”, “an electric current”, “nausea”, “broken”, “exhausted”, “like cramming two wrong puzzle pieces together”, etc. It is also important to understand that not not everyone who identifies as trans* has gender dysphoria, and not everyone who has gender dysphoria identifies as trans*.
When you hear the term transman or transwoman, it is referring to the gender that the person identifies as, and not to their biological sex. So a transman is a biological female who identifies as a man, and a transwoman is a biological male who identifies as a woman. Cisgender is also a term you might have heard. It is relatively new, and is used in transactivism (which will be addressed below). “Cis” means on the side of, so cisgender means that your gender identity is on the same side as your biological sex. Therefore, cisgender refers to anyone who does not identify as trans/ . Another less politically charged way to say the same thing is non-trans.
Gender is a term we should define. It can be used in many different ways by many different people. In pastoral conversations, therefore, it is important to always engage in active listening. Clarify what a person means if they use the word ‘gender’. That way you can both be on the same page, and not talking past one another or unnecessarily offending someone you are trying to help. Gender, according to the World Health Organization, is “the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time” (“Gender and Health”). A more simplified version might be “the psychological, social and cultural aspects of being male or female” (Yarhouse 17). Gender is a social construct, whereas one’s biological sex can only be male or female (or some combination of the two, in the case of intersex - but there are still only two biological sexes in those combinations - not some random or different 3rd or 4th sex). Scientifically speaking, humans are a dimorphic species. “Male and female are categories of biological sex based on structures of reproduction” (Sprinkle 38).
According to the 2019 census in Canada, 0.35% of the Canadian population identify as transgender (“Sex at Birth and Gender: Technical Report on Changes for the 2021 Census”). This website says the US has a similar stat from 2011, but a 2016 study shows double the population from a decade ago is now transgender in the United States, at 0.6% (Loyal, thisisloyal.com). The number of those in Canada who identify as non-binary (neither male nor female) is 0.07%. But it is to be noted that the number is 3x higher in those under 35 (0.11%) from those above 35 years (0.02%). There are 33% more transmen than transwomen in the under 35 years category. This has changed dramatically in the last decade, with a rapid increase in teen girls transitioning to become transmen. The phenomenon is being called Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria, and it has a social-contagion aspect to it due to many factors, including social media. One clinic in the UK has seen a 5000% increase in females seeking treatment for experiencing dysphoria (Sprinkle 162). This is something to be aware of in working with youth; however, if a teen female expresses that she is transgender, one should never assume that she is just following a trend and doesn’t have genuine mental distress. Remember, if you have met one trans/ person, you have met one trans person.
The alarming thing out of the current information and research, is the push to get kids and teens who express dysphoria or the feeling they might be trans/ to transition. This might be through hormone therapy where they take the hormone of the sex they want to become, or even sex reassignment surgery. Double mastectomies can be given to girls as young as 15 without parental consent. This push is called gender affirmation and is a hard pendulum swing away from what people saw as conversion therapy. It is now illegal to counsel children to identify with their biological sex and to teach them coping skills because it is seen as a form of conversion therapy. Instead, medical professionals are pushing puberty blockers, hormone therapy, surgery, and breast binding after brief appointments where kids say they are trans/ . If parents do push back, they are often told that either it is transition therapy or suicide. This, of course, scares parents into going along with the gender-affirming treatment plan. As Preston Sprinkle writes, “no one disputes that suicidality is high among trans/ people. Just how high is tougher to say. In any case, one of the most important—yet often neglected—aspects of high suicidality rates among trans/ people is the presence of co-occuring mental health concerns” (Sprinkle 230). Health professionals would do well to take more time and a more holistic approach in assessing young people expressing gender dysphoria in order to treat other underlying mental health issues. Along with this, the stats show that somewhere between 60-90% of adolescents with gender dysphoria do come out of it by the time they are adults. That is a huge percentage of kids who should never be pushed towards gender transitioning. As youth workers, there isn’t much we can do about all of that information, other than be aware. You are not the parent and you are not the health professional. You can, however, provide a space for all kids to feel safe and accepted. A space where they can be truly listened to. A space where you are ready if someone exhibits signs of suicidality. I have included Preston Sprinkle’s “A Christian Response to Suicidality Among Trans* People” as part of the portfolio.
So where did the rise of gender theory even come from? It is built upon the foundation of postmodernism and cultural evolution. Gender theorists “say it is impossible to base gender on biological facts because we cannot objectively know those facts—or any other facts either” (Pearcey 209). Postmodernism is rooted in the philosophy of a man named Hegel. His work was secularized by his successors and is summed up in the idea that our individual consciousness is part of a larger group consciousness and we are shaped and informed by that. “We have no access to objective scientific facts” (Pearcey 210). Our bodies, therefore, are not objective biological things. Rather they are a cultural construct, along with our sex. Can you see how coming up with the gender you are most comfortable with is the logical outcome of this thinking? However, as Pearcey notes, “the fatal flaw in such radical skepticism is that it undercuts itself. If all humans are trapped in what their culture tells them, with no access to truth, how can postmodernists know that their own claims are true?” (Pearcey 210).
Another problem with postmodern gender theory and transactivism is that it undercuts women’s long fought-for rights. One of those areas is in women’s sports. As a current cultural example, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation on his inauguration day, ensuring that all children are included in sports according to their gender. Female athletes are feeling the squeeze, however, and are pushing back on a complex issue.
“We fully support the Biden executive order, ending LGBT discrimination throughout society, including employment, banking, family law and public accommodations,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a Title IX attorney and one of the leaders of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, told USA TODAY Sports in an exclusive interview. “Competitive sports, however, are akin to pregnancy and medical testing; these areas require a science-based approach to trans inclusion. Our aim has been on protecting the girls’ and women’s competitive categories, while crafting accommodations for trans athletes into sport wherever possible” (Brennan).
Interestingly, it would seem that there are some things that require objective facts to be known and abided by, such as pregnancy and medical testing.
Famous author, J.K. Rowling, has received a backlash due to speaking out about the dangers of transactivism to the basic rights of women. Her concerns are 5-fold: She is concerned about the loss of medical funding and research for specifically female diseases if biological sex becomes a social construct. (For example, MS behaves very differently in females, as does heart disease). She is concerned about the education of girls and their safe-guarding. She is concerned about the right to free speech—especially since she got “cancelled” and labelled transphobic for speaking up on these issues. She is concerned about the recent explosion in teen girls wanting to transition, and the effects of social media and pornography on how girls view themselves. And last but not least, as a sexual assault survivor, she is deeply concerned that transwomen (especially those that have not transitioned, but just say they are trans*) can have access to female spaces such as locker rooms, women’s shelters and so on. I will include Rowling’s blog post Rowling’s in the portfolio.
In Love Thy Body, Pearcey quotes feminist activist, Mary Lou Singleton as saying “‘My entire life work is fighting for the class of people who are oppressed on the basis of their biological sex,’ including atrocities like forced child marriage, infanticide of baby girls, and female genital mutilation, which occur across the globe. But because of the gender identity movement, Singleton says, it is now deemed transphobic even to label these victims women and girls” (Pearcey 212).
As you can see, this is a very complex issue. While the actual number of trans/ in the population is quite small, the controversy is huge and the activists are loud and intimidating. And while this is all good context, (and context is always important), it is meant to be background information for the youth worker, and NOT to be used to argue a kid out of being trans/ . Most of this information should fall to the background when it comes to actually dealing with a troubled kid face-to-face. We have the privilege, as youth workers, to love trans* kids, to walk alongside them, to actively listen, to introduce them to Jesus, who loved hanging out with people who were struggling, who were outsiders, who were looking for some hope. Like Jesus, we need to love others in the tension of extending grace and speaking truth in love.
Speaking of Jesus, what was his view of transgender people? What is the biblical perspective on all of this? And how should churches operate in regards to trans* folk?
There is nothing overt in scripture directed at trans* people. But we can apply principles found in passages on creation, marriage and generally about how to treat all people. Looking at creation, Genesis 1:27 points to humanity being sexually dimorphic. “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NLT). The passage then goes on to talk about them multiplying and filling the earth—having sex and making babies. Science supports the fact that there are only two sexes in the human race. And even though transactivists like to point out intersex (people born with both sex characteristics or anatomy in some form) as proof of nonbinary, they are actually a combination of only two possibilities, male and female. There is no third sex of human. And even 99% Intersex people present as either male or female, some of them not finding out about their condition until well into their adulthood, and some not at all.
Another aspect of Genesis 1:27, is that God made humanity—male and female—in his image. While we don’t know exactly all that entails being made in God’s image, it does apparently involve our sexed bodies. “Our sex is not arbitrary. It’s part of how we reflect God’s image in the world” (Sprinkle 184). Jesus himself came to this world in a sexed body, and he was resurrected in one. He is our example of what our resurrection body will be like. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians also speaks to ethical behaviour with a high view of the body. This “overarching biblical theology of sexed embodiment—one that looks back to creation (Gen 1-2) and forward to our resurrected state—suggests that our sexed bodies are a significant part of human identity and personhood” (Sprinkle 186).
Another thing to guard against, I believe, is invoking some kind of rule about “biblical manhood or biblical womanhood” in relation to gender roles. Gender roles (or stereotypes, for lack of a better term) are highly cultural. In fact, when we look at some biblical characters, they certainly don’t act masculine or feminine according to our current culture’s standards. King David, for example, wrote poetry, played a harp and sang, and wept, and had a best friend as a soul mate. Those all seem like very feminine traits — and yet this was the same man after God’s own heart, a warrior who cut off Goliath’s head, and so on. Let’s be careful not to play into our culture’s stereotypes of what it means to be masculine or feminine and thus box people in. The spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament, the fruits of the spirit and other godly traits are not assigned to specific genders. They are for all believers. Galatians 3:28 (NLT) says, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So while we are made in God’s image as sex embodied humans—male and female—we also have a wide range of gifts and abilities that shouldn’t be boxed in by cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.
This high view of the sexed body in scripture is put here not to enable you to win an argument against a trans/ person who is considering transitioning. There is a time to learn theology and ethics, and there is a time to be pastoral. We must approach our trans siblings with care and respect. We must deliver truth in a manner of deep love and patience. Sprinkle says,
“If you are a Christian in leadership, or any Christian mentoring or parenting someone who’s trans/ , we must give trans/ people space to wrestle with the ethical aspects of transitioning. A top-down, heavy-handed, compassionless approach that gives no room for personal wrestling—‘Thus saith me and the Lord!’—will most likely push people toward transitioning and away from us. We need to hold our views with humility, graciously prioritizing relationship. We can’t force-feed our views to others—no matter how biblical they may be” (188).
Another aspect of a biblical perspective that should be considered is what the Bible has to say about suffering. Many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are in distress and desire healing, whether through a miraculous intervention, or from medical professionals or from transitioning. We need to be careful in our ministry not to declare what we think are God’s intentions. God often uses suffering to draw people closer to him as they must rely on him. Even the apostle Paul was given a ‘thorn in his flesh’ that he prayed for healing and God did not heal him (2 Cor. 12:7-10, NLT). Instead, God told Paul that his power was best used in Paul’s weakness. Someday all our illnesses and sorrows will be healed when we are in God’s presence. But for now, part of our discipleship and sanctification journey is learning to be obedient to Christ and reliant upon him for what we need. As we walk the journey of discipleship with trans* kids in our ministry (and any type of kid in our ministry), as we listen to them, weep with them, comfort them, and when the time is right, this is perhaps something with can share with them.
If a student reveals they are trans*, what ought our response be as a youth worker, as a church? I have mentioned a few best practices for individuals already through the section on biblical perspective, such as creating a safe space, active listening, praying with them, weeping with them and comforting them. Take an interest in them and be there for them. It sounds simple, but it is messy. It means loving that kids who is dressed weird or the kid that is being left out or acting out. Jesus loved outsiders, the people not typically accepted by the “institution”, the marginalized, people who were perceived as messed up. “All throughout Scripture, we see God meeting people where they are in order to walk with them toward where he wants them to be” (Sprinkle 209). This is what our ministry should look like too—our discipleship of others—for both our students and our leaders. And this takes time. Discipleship is a long process that happens as we journey with people. It won’t happen overnight.
There are some practical things that can be done as well. Perhaps it is making sure there is a single-unit washroom available. As an example, our church had two of those originally designated as a male handicap washroom and a female handicap washroom (we also have larger male and female washrooms with multiple stalls). A very simple way to make people feel more welcome was to change those signs so that both single-unit bathrooms each had a male/female/wheelchair sign on the door. No skin off our back, but that might make all the difference for a trans/ person at our church. It provides a literal safe space for both trans/ and non-trans/ people while avoiding controversy. A similar approach can be taken at camps - providing spaces for bodily privacy for all kids while ensuring the proper kind of supervision so that bullying or abuse can’t happen. Having options available, and then discussing them with trans/ kids and their families would show you care, but also give you opportunity to assess the needs of each case. Simply putting trans/ kids in with same-sex campers does not necessarily care for a kid with severe dysphoria, or it might open them up to bullying. And you can’t put them in with opposite sex kids. However, you could possibly create other options in cooperation with the student and their parents. Keep in mind that the end goal of all of this is to give a student the opportunity to experience the love of Jesus and come to know him. The way you treat a trans student will also speak loudly to the rest of your students. This generation is (for the most part) highly compassionate towards their LGBTQ peers, and if they see you being thoughtfully compassionate in this way, it will be a wonderful witness of Jesus in action to them. I will include some examples of camp options in the portfolio.
Another practical thing you can do to build relationship with a trans/ student is to use their pronoun of choice. Some people balk at this because they think it affirms the trans/ person’s choices or they think it is outright lying. I am not sure making this a hill to die on will help produce any kind of relationship with someone who is trans/ . By listening to them—really hearing their story—and calling them by their pronoun of choice can be seen as hospitality and respect. You value them as a human being and are showing them they matter. It opens the door to a relationship and further conversation rather than slamming it shut in their faces. And if you open the door to the process of discipleship, the Holy Spirit can do his own convicting as you walk with trans people and open up the word of God together.
As mentioned several times already, the key is to get to know each trans/ person you meet individually. They will have their own unique needs and struggles. They won’t be the same struggles as the other trans/ kids you know. In a sense, this is simply good ministry practice and should be applied to every student we disciple—trans/ or non-trans. Each person is wonderfully made in the image of God with their own unique gifts and abilities and should be treated as precious in his sight….because they are. We should make it a ministry practice to listen actively to each individual and to never make assumptions.
What about when it comes to your church as a whole? Has the leadership at your church prayed about and decided upon how they will treat members of the LGBTQ2 community—especially trans*— if they attend your church? If someone asked what their position was on this issue, do you know what they would say? These are important discussions to have, and important topics to be preached and taught on in the body. Yarhouse mentions that often in evangelical churches we have an unwritten model of behave - believe - belong (Yarhouse 147). The church often expects people to get their behaviour sorted out before they are accepted into the church. The personal testimony model reflects this as well. I was lost and did all kinds of bad things. Jesus saved me. Now I am redeemed (behave without sin). This is unrealistic in the sense that none of us are saved in the sense that we never sin again. This model leaves people on the outside. If we want to missional - if we want to reach people who are lost and hurting and bring them into the kingdom - we need to provide community first, give them a place of belonging, build a relationship. This model would look like belong - believe - become. Notice the last one doesn’t say behave. We are all on the road of sanctification as believers; we are all becoming. This model takes courage because it is messy. It means that we should also have our spaces filled with diversity as we live out our calling as Jesus’ ambassadors. It takes courage because in those redemptive spaces, we need to also have the courage to speak truth in love - always pointing at Jesus - always coming back to the Word.
In his book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture, Yarhouse lays out three frameworks that churches often lean towards in regards to LGBTQ2 issues, takes the best from all of them and offers what he calls an integrated framework. This means holding a high view of creation of male and female in the image of God. It also means treating each trans* person individually and hearing their story - really hearing it. From there, seeing their condition of distress, confusion or dysphoria as a part of the fall while treating them with compassion. At the same time, we need to celebrate them as humans and affirm the gifts and abilities they have while finding a place for them in community as we walk the journey of discipleship together. Simple right?
Trans/ people are those that struggle with an incongruence between the sex they embody and the person they feel they are on the inside. Trans/ and non-trans/ people alike struggle with a whole host of things on the inside and the outside. We are all people made in the image of God. As followers of Christ, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. Simply put, trans/ people are our neighbours. How would we like to be loved? That is how we should treat them. It’s not rocket science. As Sprinkles says, “Sinners in need of grace can’t obey God until they know that they are first accepted by God. Acceptance (into relationship/community) precedes obedience” (Sprinkle, Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality 73). Put a trans/ person in the shoes of Zaccheus, an outsider who Jesus invited himself to befriend. Put a trans/ person in the shoes of the beaten Jew lying on the side of the road, whom all the institutionalized religious people passed by (or for that matter put them in the shoes of the Samaritan and YOU lying on the side of the road). Put a trans* person in the shoes of the woman caught in adultery about to be stoned. Jesus told those with no sin to be the first to cast a stone at her to start her execution. No one could. “Does anyone condemn you?” Jesus asked. “Neither do I. Now go and sin no more.” Romans 2:4 (NLT) says, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness in interred to turn you from your sin?” God doesn’t wait till we have it together to show us his kindness. We should act in kind.
I thank God for the LGBTQ2 people who, despite their struggles, want to seek God and be a part of his family. They can teach all of us about compassion, authenticity and the struggle to be the same on the inside as we are on the outside in all the aspects of our lives. I thank God for those like Yarhouse and Sprinkle, researchers and authors who are carefully and thoughtfully bringing together scholarship and compassion to help us all figure out how to navigate these issues with Christ’s love, grace and truth. I believe that as we all struggle through this together and invite the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and compassion, we will learn how to be more like Christ — and isn’t that the whole point on our journey together towards the Resurrection?
American Pyschological Association. “A Glossary: Defining Transgender Terms.” Www.Apa.Org, Sept. 2018, www.apa.org/monitor/2018/09/ce-corner-glossary#.
Brennan, Christine Usa Today. “Sports Leaders Seek to Protect Women’s Sports While Accommodating Transgender Girls and Women.” USA TODAY, 1 Feb. 2021, eu.usatoday.com/story/sports/2021/02/01/group-protect-womens-sports-accommodate-transgender-athletes/4345854001.
“Gender and Health.” World Health Organization, 19 June 2019, www.who.int/health-topics/gender#tab=tab_1.
Loyal, thisisloyal.com. “How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States?” Williams Institute, 28 Apr. 2020, williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/trans-adults-united-states.
Pearcey, Nancy. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. 1st ed., Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2018.
“Sex at Birth and Gender: Technical Report on Changes for the 2021 Census.” Statistics Canada, July 2020, www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2021/ref/98-20-0002/982000022020002-eng.cfm.
Sprinkle, Preston. Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say. Colorado Springs, CO, David C Cook, 2021.
---. Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality. Gld, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2015.
Yarhouse, Mark. Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (Christian Association for Psychological Studies Books). Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Academic, 2015.