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by Emily Helder

Originally published in Reformed Journal

I’m a college professor, which means I have a front row seat to the experiences of young adults. I love the job because I get to witness and speak into their lives at a crucial stage of development, a time in which they are making key choices about who they want to be and where God is calling them. In developing these relationships, I also have the holy work of walking alongside them as they experience difficulties, disappointments, and process aspects of their pasts that are influencing their present reality. From this vantage point, I regularly grieve what many transgender and nonbinary students have experienced within their families, within the church, and also within our broader culture.

At times, I have had the opportunity to witness the flourishing, confidence, and deepened family and faith community connections that come when a transgender or nonbinary student receives support, acceptance, and care. At other times, I have grieved alongside students who were shunned by family or their faith community after they disclosed their gender identity and were met with marginalization or misunderstanding.

As a psychologist, my education, teaching, and research have provided me with training on topics of gender, sexuality, and well-being, and have led to a comfort discussing these things. I know for many people talking about personal and sensitive topics such as gender and sexuality can be challenging. Feelings of discomfort, shame, or embarrassment may arise. Norms and language around gender and sexuality have also been changing, leading some to feel as though the ground is shifting underneath them. It can require patience, humility, and a willingness to seek information and process emotions and past experiences in order to serve as a safe place for young adults to ask questions and discuss these topics.

As a result of my experiences and in the context of my vocation as a psychologist, I have a strong desire to resource families, churches, schools, and other communities to promote the thriving and belonging of fellow image-bearers who often experience marginalization due to their gender identity. Learning about and teaching on these topics has inspired in me an awe for the diversity and richness of God’s creation that I hope can be an antidote to the false certainty and harshness present in the conversations about gender and sexuality characterized by the culture wars.

What general revelation teaches us about gender diversity

Too often, I’ve observed conversations about transgender and nonbinary people that are not grounded in what biology, psychology, and other disciplines have contributed to our understanding of gender diversity. Listening to this general revelation can address a number of misunderstandings, stereotypes, and myths that are propagated through soundbites from the broader cultural discussions.

One common misunderstanding is the conflation of biological sex and gender identity. Biological sex is generally determined by a set of physical characteristics, including chromosomes, hormone levels, gonads, and genitals. Using these physical characteristics, sex is often assigned or labeled at birth. In contrast, gender identity is the internal experience of one’s own gender, which often, but does not always, match one’s biological sex.

A second misunderstanding is that both sex and gender are binary, meaning there are only two options. Again, general revelation shows us this is not the case. In terms of biological sex, while the majority of people are male or female, showing a relatively consistent pattern across these physical features, about 1% of people are intersex, which can be seen in differences in sex chromosomes (such as XXY or XO) and/or a mixed presentation of genitals or gonads. Some intersex individuals are identified at birth, but some discover this later on in adolescence or adulthood when puberty or fertility proceed in unexpected ways. Thus, there is a spectrum for the way that biological sex presents itself, male and female are the most common, but not the only biological sexes. Regarding gender identity, most people identify as a man or a woman, but worldwide, about .1-2% of people identify as gender diverse. This means either that their gender identity does not correspond with their assigned sex at birth or that their gender identity does not fit the binary categories of man or woman. Nonbinary individuals may experience their gender as a combination of man and women, as neither of these categories, or something else. This percentage of gender diversity is higher among younger people, with 5% identifying as transgender or nonbinary among 18-29 year olds in a recent large-scale US survey.  Scientists are still trying to understand whether this higher percentage reflects a real change over time in the presence of transgender and nonbinary people or whether the numbers are now just capturing the real prevalence more accurately as social stigma and access to information has improved. Just like with biological sex, having solely binary categories results in an oversimplification of the complexity that exists related to gender identity.

An objection I have heard to accepting this diversity evidenced by the presence of intersex, transgender, and nonbinary people relates to the creation narrative presented in Genesis. I value scripture highly and at the same time I do not see language around the creation of male and female excluding the possibility of sex and gender outside those binary categories. Importantly, God doesn’t intend for Genesis or other parts of the Bible to be a science textbook. Instead, Genesis’ role is to answer questions about who God is and who humans are in relationship to God. The primary message conveyed in the creation narrative in Genesis is that all humans are made in God’s image, we are the crown jewel of God’s creation—a message that transcends gender. Even in the patriarchal society in which the Bible was written, Genesis extends this image-bearing to women. This conveys the message that God is an includer and that my priority as a human should be to do the same, recognizing and cherishing that image-bearing capacity in all people. Note also, the language used in the text is male and female, not male or female. Genesis provides us with the two most common ways that gender presents, but doesn’t exclude the potential for alternative presentations.

A third common misconception is that gender diversity is a new phenomenon or a fad. General revelation in history, sociology, and anthropology refutes this. While the use of specific terms to refer to gender diversity, such as transgender, nonbinary, or genderfluid, are relatively new, there is a long history of gender identities and expression outside of binary categories across many cultures and places. For example, historically, in what is now the United States and Canada, many Indigenous and Native American groups recognized more than two genders and gender diverse individuals were often given positions of prominence and spiritual significance.

Challenges to thriving and belonging for gender diverse people

Transgender and nonbinary people are caught in the cross-hairs of the culture wars and these myths, stereotypes, and misunderstandings have significant consequences to their well-being and ability to experience belonging in communities. Unfortunately, those who are transgender and/or nonbinary experience discriminationbullyingabuse, and violence at much higher rates than cis-gender people (those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth). Transgender and nonbinary young people who have experienced discrimination, threats, and/or physical violence have a higher rate of mental health problems and suicidal thinking than transgender and nonbinary people who have not experienced these things. Additionally, transgender and nonbinary youth who experienced their home as not accepting of their gender were significantly more likely to attempt suicide compared with youth who experienced gender affirmation at home. Psychological research points clearly to the distress and pain that transgender and nonbinary folks experience when they are treated poorly and stigmatized, while at the same time points towards the greater wholeness and well-being that can come with a supportive and inclusive community. These research findings add a valuable sense of urgency to our call to care well for our fellow-image bearers. God is near to those who are marginalized, bullied, or experiencing violence; we can join in God’s work by prioritizing belonging for transgender and nonbinary people.

The role of supportive communities

Parents and caregivers can play a big role in ensuring their gender minority children are supported within the home. Specifically, in a survey that asked gender minority youth about ways they felt supported at home, youth listed parent behaviors such as: being welcoming to LGBTQ+ friends, talking respectfully about their gender identity, using their name and pronouns correctly, supporting their gender expression, and educating themselves about LGBTQ+ people and issues. Youth who had high levels of this sort of support had a greatly reduced incidence of suicide attempts and suicidal ideation and higher self-esteem compared with those who had low levels of these supports. Faith communities can also serve as an avenue for support for the one in five LGBTQ youth who report that religion or spirituality is important or very important to them. Similar to parental support, LGBTQ+ young adults who experience a religious community that was supportive and did not create conflict between their religious identity and gender or sexual identity had reduced levels of suicidal thinking. Similar benefits to well-being for transgender and non-binary youth can be found when school settings take active steps to reduce harassment and increase supportive connections between teachers and gender minority students. Taken together, this evidence shows the good fruit (i.e., Matthew 7:17) that can come from supportive home, church, and school communities.

In conversations with transgender and nonbinary friends and students, the importance of using the correct pronouns that a person has requested is emphasized as a way to show care and promote belonging. As detailed above, it has been identified as a primary way to show support by gender minority youth and those that have their pronouns used and respected have better mental health outcomes over time. While they/them is used as a singular pronoun when we are referring to an unknown person, some gender minorities, such as nonbinary individuals, use this pronoun as well. It can take some practice to use it consistently, especially if the pronoun represents a change from the pronoun the person has used before, but it gets easier with time and repetition. If you make a mistake, which we will all do from time to time, simply apologize, correct yourself, and move on without becoming defensive.

Promoting thriving and belonging for our fellow image-bearers

God’s calling and Jesus’ example of showing care to those who are vulnerable and marginalized clearly extends to gender minorities in our current context. As 1 Peter 4:8-10 suggests “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” While there is a diversity of opinion across our theological circles, research on mental health, spirituality, and well-being can guide us toward promoting the thriving and belonging of the nonbinary and transgender people within our homes, school, and faith communities. I experience a deep joy and abiding peace when I imagine an inclusive kingdom with a wide table of welcome. I’ve had glimpses of this in the here and now, and these snippets provide me with a strong motivation to join in the work God is doing among and with us.

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