Teen Gender Dysphoria and Christmas Shopping
LGBTQIA+ orientations are a difficult topic to discuss, especially within the such a theologically diverse tribe of youth workers. Theologically, my starting point, for ministry to all students on the margins, is the Imago Dei. I choose to start there because the Imago Dei is written into everyone and that should be our orientation in all matters. Too often I have started in Genesis 3 (the fall) as my theological starting point and skip right over Genesis 1 (Imago Dei). It is that perspective that I lean into when talking or writing about all matters of marginalized groups of God’s beloved children; male or female, straight or queer, black or white, abled or disabled.
This may push into tension surrounding your understanding of trans students but, I hope that, regardless of your theological position, you will hang on until the end. I’ve tried to include some very practical ideas that hopefully have an euchumenical spirit.
There’s no denying there are toxic expressions of gender. Healthy gender training allows for fluidity and exploration. Toxic gender reinforcement says there are binary arch-types that are rewarded and social consequences when one steps “outside the gender box”. Below are Wordles from advertisement for children’s toys. Think for a moment about the implicit messaging in such advertisement.
These gender expressions aren’t necessarily bad but they do not accurately represent the whole expression of gender. When someone doesn’t fit naturally into a binary arch-type they are often made to feel as if there is something inherently deficient.
When a young boy plays with girl toys; dolls, tea party, or princesses, his peers will often call him a “fag” or a “sissy”. Derogatory statements like these only get more crude and more mean as they grow older.
What about the girl that likes to play sports and rough house or interested in cars? Well, she must be a “dyke” or “tomboy” or a “confused”.
Why? Because the cultural messages they are being told (i.e., out-dated generational gender binaries, marketing/advertisements, entertainment, etc.) that they are not acceptable in that expression and therefore must conform to the “approved” standard (hetero-normative).
In one family I know, dad is a therapist and mom is a laborer. Mom often does the heavy lifting while dad tends to the emotional struggles of his pre-teen daughters. In another family, the two dads are both attentive to their children’s emotional needs, are kind and patient, and don’t parent authoritatively yet they are both outdoors-men and love camping and roughing it with their family.
Gender is a complicated thing. When we oppress/repress an individual’s expression we create a situation in which they might be vulnerable to dysphoria. There is a term for the severe distress experienced by individuals due to the incongruence between assigned and experienced gender: gender dysphoria. This complex condition often first becomes clear in adolescents and young adults.
How and why this occurs is a post (likely several posts) for another time, the point of this post is to inform the reader of the deadly outcomes of untreated gender dysphoria. A survey of 6,500 transgender people published by the National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that 41 percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide at least once. Fifty percent of transgender youth will attempt suicide before their 20th birthday.
Due to these startling statistics, we must do better as humans. We must be kinder. We must be more compassionate. We must change the way we include these precious children in our communities because the potential of suicide cannot be an acceptable outcome. If we keep doing what we’ve always done we will always get the same results we’ve always gotten. This cycle of impotence must change. So, how does that happen? Here are a couple of suggestions:
- Proximity matters. Get to know someone who is trans. It’s really that simple. Everything changes when you actually get to know someone personally. Their story becomes your story too. Empathy increases and their pain and suffering imprints on your heart. Spend time together with no agenda other than to become friends and learn (listen).
- Educate yourself and others. There are great resources available. All it takes is some willingness and time. Here’s a link to get you started: http://www.transequality.org/
- Learn. Watch films and read books that pull back the curtain on trans-life. Dallas Buyers Club is a good place to start. There’s some nudity and profanity so here’s a link to IMDB’s Parents Guide to see if it’s something you’re comfortable with.
Whatever you do, or don’t do, just remember…
It matters. It matter to that young student who wonders if anyone cares about them. It matters to that student who wonders if there is a God that loves them. It matters to the adolescent who is afraid no one will miss them if they take their own life. It matters to the families who live in the wake of that suicide. And it matter to our collective soul. If we are okay with these losses it says something about us, it says that maybe it’s our own hearts that are the problem if we would stand by and allow this atrocity to continue to occur when we could do something to stop it.
God help us, if this is true.
What might your ministry/church look like if it was a safe space for a trans student to seek Jesus?
Chris Schaffner is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.