Supporting transgender teenagers
The past ten years have seen radical and extraordinary shifts in public perceptions regarding gender and sexuality in post-industrial societies
such as the UK. Perhaps most notable among these shifts is the emergence of understanding around transgender people.
When I transitioned from male to female in the early 90s, representations of trans people in media and culture were very limited. Most of the images and ideas around transgender identity were drawn from the lurid pages of tabloids. People readily talked about ‘sex changes’ and ‘being trapped in the wrong body’, and if narratives were limited for trans women, they were much more so for trans men.
While the examples of Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Kellie Maloney may have changed the profile of trans people in society, I still feel as if we’re only just beginning to have a language and practice of support for those exploring their gender identity. I trust we all want youth workers and ministers to be skilled and aware in the work they do; what happens, however, when new situations emerge in which there are no clear competences and established practices?
Beyond top tips
I’m passionate about getting the support of trans people as right as we can. However, I do not write as an expert; I don’t have a PhD in ‘trans care from a Christian perspective’. The reality is that I’m not sure there are many experts when it comes to best practice in the loving Christian support of young trans people. If society has taken time to begin accepting and affirming trans people, the Church has, unsurprisingly, been a little bit further behind the curve. In some church settings, at least, the way scripture is read may lead to serious questions about the very possibility of trans people. Some Christians will feel that the primary task of counselling and support in church settings will be to convince trans people to accept their ‘birth’ gender.
However, as a trans woman who happens to be a priest (and vice versa), I’d like to offer a few suggestions about how people can be trans allies, especially towards young trans people. These are not ‘top tips’ or, as our modern parlance has it, ‘life hacks’. Rather, I want to encourage you to think about how you might model Christ’s love and acceptance in a mature but sensitive way.
Transitioning and gender reassignment are not the answer to everything
Trans PEOPLE: the clue is in the name
Perhaps the single most important thing to remember is that young trans people are, ultimately, people. It might seem like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s so obvious it’s easy to miss. Trans people are among the most ‘fetishised’ people on Earth. That is, trans people of all ages are often seen through a lens that treats us as curiosities, freaks or alien people. Non-trans people can project onto us all sorts of anxieties, but also fascination. For example, in some parts of Hindu culture, Indian trans women, known as ‘Hijra’, are often invested with ‘holy’ properties and it is considered ‘lucky’ to have them sing at weddings. Yet at the same time, they are treated as weird outsiders.
Being treated as ‘ordinary’ is a common desire for trans people of all ages. Almost no one likes to be singled out for something that is incidentally true about them, be it their eye colour, the length of their hair or anything else. No one wants to be picked on for a feature over which they have no control. Trans young people want to be seen as young people. Acceptance and affirmation are pretty basic human desires. I sense this is especially pressing for any of us when we are young. Even people who love to be a bit different – and I was definitely one when I was a teenager – want to find their place in community. No one wants to be ostracised, especially when our sense of place in the world is emerging. To come at this from another angle, no one wants to be sensationalised. It is human nature, perhaps, to be inquisitive and one would have to be in wilful denial to pretend that churches don’t rank among the most gossipy environments. In wider society, trans people have been putting up with a litany of intrusive comments for decades. This ranges from questions about intimate parts of our bodies that no one would dare ask of nontrans people, through to crass questions such as, ‘When are you going to have the “op”?’ Churches ought to be modelling a different kind of response.
Perhaps the simplest practice to model in supporting and becoming an ally to a young trans person is this: let them lead the conversation when exploring their private and personal space, just as you would with any person. Do not transgress their boundaries. There are things we would not consider appropriate in conversation with non-trans people. We have no right to suspend that simply because a person is trans.
In short, grant a young trans person the respect and love to disclose as they see fit, not as you think they should. Respect a person’s privacy and let young trans people find themselves as one would hope all young people take time to find themselves. Young trans people may be facing a number of extra complications. However, perhaps those of us who are trans simply face a very intense version of the ordinary human process of becoming adults.
Being a teen can be horrifying, and being a transgender teen can be especially horrifying
The name game
All this has a number of practical and, dare I say it, theological implications for respecting, supporting and loving young trans people. Among the practical considerations are simple factors such as respecting the chosen names and gender pronouns of a trans person. Let the individual guide you on pronouns. If in doubt, ask what the person prefers. Equally, the vast majority of trans people do not wish to broadcast their former first name. This desire for discretion is so potent that former names are often known as ‘dead’ names. Please do not consider it appropriate to ask, ‘What is your real name then?’
From a parental perspective, allowing a young person to treat their given name as a dead name can be profoundly challenging. Families have typically cherished their sons or daughters and to discover that their son is actually their daughter, or vice versa, can come as a profound shock. However, my sense is that there is no boundary to grace. Having witnessed the pain experienced by trans people who have not been fully accepted by their families, I think it’s crucial that we try to travel the path towards acceptance of who a trans person is becoming. Such a journey will always be painful, but I know families can make it. And the joy of discovering that one’s daughter is a son can be extraordinary. It is possible to discover that the person one thinks one has lost has actually truly been found.
Aristotle said that we are ultimately creatures of habit and that we ‘are’ what we do most. The name and gender assigned at birth can feel utterly ‘attached’ to a person, especially if, as a parent, you’re responsible for the naming. Trans people are not being ungracious by insisting on their new name and pronouns. It can be very hard for non-trans people to understand how bone-deep our new names can feel for those of us who are trans. By the time I was a teen I had thought more about gender and identity than many people three times my age. So please respect our stories and journeys. Our desire to transition is not whimsical.
The even more difficult teenage years
We also need to be rigorously honest. In my experience, young trans people have a sophistication about identity that is rarely granted to non-trans people. However, anxiety and insecurity about identity is often amplified. As I see it, this is the result of our society’s sinful obsessions with particular ideals about gender and identity, and trans people’s awareness of their impact on individuals.
Young male-to-female trans women, for example, are as intimidated by the beauty myths and ideals around femininity as most non-trans women. However, our society can be cruel to anyone who doesn’t fit the prevailing social norms of attractiveness and gender presentation. Our society’s advertising promotes images of buff men and pretty women. If all of us are prey to those norms in our teen years, how much more so for a young trans person?
Being a teen can be horrifying, and being a trans teen can be especially horrifying. For those who have not ‘come out’ it can feel as though they are carrying a terrible, toxic secret that will destroy relationships. However, those who have ‘come out’, are faced with the very real risks of violence, bullying and mockery because they may struggle to fit in. Some Christians will be concerned about trans people’s desire to access hormone blockers, secondary-sex hormones and even surgery, however these desires are not merely cosmetic. They are bone-deep. Acquiring the secondary sex characteristics of our chosen gender may help us fit in. Again, I say to anyone who wants to be an ally: be attentive, be kind, don’t judge and walk with the person negotiating a complex and authentic journey, just as you would with anyone becoming their true self.
This final point brings me on to theology. We often say in Christian circles that we are born in the image of God and called into the likeness of Christ. I think that signals the extent to which we, as Christians, must be committed to journeys of truth and authenticity. No one is born Christian. We acknowledge that to be Christian is to be ‘born again’. Even if you disagree with the decisions and choices of trans people and are worried about young people making catastrophic choices, being a person of faith is to understand that life is based on change and growth.
Transitioning from one gender to another, for me to have become Rachel, was a journey into truth and authenticity. It was being born again. Indeed, for me, it was a prelude to that incredible experience of being ‘born again from above in Christ’. As such, I argue that if all life is sacred, we need to acknowledge that young trans people’s commitment to becoming their true selves is sacred. It’s holy ground. So please tread carefully.
One of the things I’ve said repeatedly to people of all ages considering transitioning from one gender to another is this: do not imagine it is the answer to all your problems. I’ve said this most often to younger people, I hope not in a patronising way, but as one who still remembers how ‘black and white’ the world can seem when we’re 15. A sensitive, loving friend will come alongside young trans people, helping them to discern a path and get appropriate medical support, but also to avoid losing sight of the wider world and God’s invitation to enjoy and play our part in creation.
But let’s be clear. If transitioning and gender reassignment are not the answer to everything, they present an opportunity for young trans people to have the life that many non-trans people take for granted. We live in a world in which the attempted suicide rates for trans people are ten times higher than for non-trans people. That, as I’ve experienced it, is not the result of trans people being ‘mess-ups’, but because we live in a society and culture that remains extraordinarily prejudiced against trans people and makes us feel we have to bottle up and hide who we actually are.
Jesus said: ‘Stay with me. Watch and pray.’ Yet the disciples could not stay awake. Often what young trans people want most is people who can stay awake with them, alert to the demands and challenges of a prejudiced and challenging world. Hey, that’s actually what most young people want, isn’t it? That and the chance to be supported into finding their way into an increasingly complex and strange world so that they can live, delight and flourish.