Dr Sharon James explains what to do if your child is confused...
I'm a parent of a transgender teen and I disagree with the advice of The Christian Institute
Katie Pope knows firsthand what it’s like to parent a transgender teenager. In this blog she shares her advice on navigating this challenging path
I am the mother of a transgender 16-year-old. I’m also a Christian. That’s why I found the recent advice offered on this blog by the Christian Institute’s Dr Sharon James troubling.
In response I’d like to offer ten alternative tips for parenting in a gender fluid culture.
1. Don’t preach at your child
If your child is transgender this isn’t a theological or a salvation issue. They can be transgender and a Christian if they choose to share your faith.
The Bible has nothing to say about being transgender (the concept didn’t even exist when the Bible was written) and being transgender is not a sin. Some groups who oppose transgender people like to argue that Genesis says “male and female he created them” this is a poor understanding of the passage. For a start it doesn’t rule out being transgender because it doesn’t say male or female, it doesn’t imply any necessity for us to be one or the other. This understanding rules out God creating intersex people, and we know they exist and are just as much image bearers of God as anyone else, so why shouldn’t transgender people be?
The passage in Genesis isn’t about gender, it’s about reminding us that whatever our gender identity we are made in God’s image and loved by him. Even if you disagree with me, what good will telling your child they are “unnatural” or “an abomination” do?
2. Make sure your child knows they are loved, no matter what
You may not want your child to be transgender. That’s irrelevant. It’s not your decision to make. There is nothing any child needs more than to know they are loved and accepted. Your child needs to know that whatever decisions they make in their lifetime you will fully love and accept them. We all make better decisions when we feel valued for who we are, because the pressure to make the decision based on someone else’s desires is removed and we can make the choice that’s right for us. If your child does not feel loved, valued and supported they will not be able to consider what is best for them because they will be trying to second guess you.
And this extends to putting your child first. If your church does not support you and your child, find another church. If your church makes your child feel ‘less than’ or ‘judged’ because they are transgender- find another church. Never ever ever choose your church over your child.
3. Be a role model
Be a good role model for your own gender. If you’re a woman don’t constantly defer to male authority, if you’re a man don’t use your power to treat women as second class citizens. In fact, be a good role model in general. If you want your child to be kind, be kind. If you want your child to be hard working, be hard working. If you want your child to make good choices let them see you making good choices. Be the adult you want your child to grow into. This is good advice whether your child is transgender or not. And finally, promote diversity in your child’s life, try to hang out with adults who provide good role models and examples of humanity in differing ways. It’s good for children to know there’s no one single way to be human.
4. Make sure your child is safe
Around 64 per cent of transgender young people have experienced bullying in school and two in five transgender people have experienced a hate crime in the last 12 months because of their gender identity. Whatever your opinion of this complex issue that’s not okay.
As parents we have to do whatever we can to defend our children, so be your child’s biggest ally. If they’re being bullied at school, make sure the school is taking action, and if not, complain. If they experience hate crime- report it. Talk to your child about safety planning when they go out, they are more likely to be targeted so talk to them about staying with friends, not walking home alone at night, sticking to busy areas etc. Your child has a right to feel safe all the time. You need to communicate this right to them and they need to know that you will do all you can to ensure this right isn’t breached.
5. Make sure your child has support
Your pastor may be lovely, your prayer circle may be really supportive and engaged, but what do they know about the issues your child is facing? Probably not much. Your child is questioning who they are and what their future looks like and no doubt that’s scary. You’re not an expert and neither is your church. Make sure someone who is can support your child.
Most local authorities provide a local youth group for LGBT young people run by trained professionals. Encourage and help them to find sources of support like this. Encourage your child’s friendships, they will probably talk more to their peers than to you, and friendships can be incredibly supportive. If your child is struggling with gender dysphoria, go to the GP or access some counselling if you can.
6. Remember this isn’t about you
As I said in point two, your feelings about this are irrelevant. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s hard being the parent of a transgender child, and you may feel you’re grieving for your daughter (or son) - get help with this. Talk to a friend, find a parent support group, get counselling if you need to. But ultimately your child doesn’t need to see this. This isn’t about you.
Your child has a lot of stuff to work out, they don’t need your baggage thrust onto them. They don’t need your emotional or theological input. Your doctrine should be informed by love anyway, not the other way around, and your love and support is what your child needs, not your opinions.
I know that’s hard. I have a lot of opinions, I often feel I can see exactly what’s going on for my child and what she needs to do to fix it, but life isn’t that simple is it? Humans, even the young ones, have to figure stuff out for themselves. Your child needs space, and your support to do that. Supporting a transgender child is about providing opportunities for them to explore who they are and who they want to be, make that as safe and healthy as possible for them.
Practically this means respecting and supporting the choices your child makes even if you don’t agree. Take them clothes shopping, help them navigate gendered changing rooms and public toilets in the way they want to, respect their pronouns, use the name they ask you to use. Yes it’s hard, yes you’ll slip up when you’re getting used to it, but try your best. It’s about respect. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect them. Every fibre of your body may be screaming “you’re mistaken this isn’t who you are”, but that isn’t your choice to make; it’s theirs, and you have to respect it, whether you like it or not. Once they’re over 14 they can legally make their own medical decisions anyway, and they’re more likely to listen to your warnings if you’ve proven yourself to be supportive and on their side.
7. Remember this isn’t about sex or sexuality
Many ‘Christian’ arguments against transgender people focus on passages about homosexuality. Many arguments against allowing children to socially transition use rhetoric about ‘over sexualising children’. Being transgender is nothing to do with who you do or don’t want to have sex with. Many transgender children haven’t even considered such a question because they’re so young, and some transgender people identify as asexual. It’s nothing to do with sex. Some trans people are gay, some are straight. Being transgender is about what gender you identify as, and our gender identity isn’t just about who we want to have sex with, is it? Just because your child is transgender doesn’t mean they’re sexually active or informed, they’re no more likely to be sexually active than cis children (children whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth).
All children should be receiving education about what a healthy relationship looks like, what consent is and how to have safe sex. Make sure your child is getting this and has access to contraception. The NSPCC has some really great resources about talking to your child about consent.
8. Create an open and honest atmosphere where other issues are properly dealt with
You might feel that your child is confused about their gender because of other underlying issues. Whether you’re right or not, it’s still important that all emotional issues are properly dealt. Unresolved issues from childhood can have a deep impact on us as adults.
Make sure your home is an open, honest environment where children know they can talk about anything, no matter how awful, and make sure your child knows which other adults in their life are safe to talk to about anything that may be traumatic for them. If your child has experienced any trauma then make sure they’ve got relevant support in place, not to “fix” their gender confusion, but simply because this is good for them.
9. Take self-harm and suicide threats seriously
More than four in five trans young people have self-harmed and more than two in five trans young people have attempted to take their own lives. Don’t live in fear of these statistics but take any suggestions of suicidal feelings seriously and push for support from your local mental health team. Young Minds offer help and support to children and parents around mental health. You’re not in this alone.
10. Consider who you listen to. Don’t buy into fear mongering
There is a lot of animosity towards transgender people, coming from both feminism and from those who call themselves Christians. Sometimes these groups publish “advice” for parents of transgender children, but these people firstly don’t have our children’s best interests at heart and secondly don’t actually have any idea about the issues they’re discussing. On the other side of the coin there are those who are so keen to be “right on” and “supportive” they lack balance. It’s hard to know who to listen to for advice.
Beware the scaremongering around the gender identity service, of course there is dispute among professionals and of course they won’t always get it right, this is a complicated issue that nobody really knows the answer to, but professionals are the best people to support your child, not activists.
You won’t always get this right, but ultimately if you love and accept your child for who they are and support them to explore the issue for themselves, then you’re on the right track.
*All statistics are taken from the Stonewall website.
Katie Pope is a family support worker and mum to three children.
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