An article in New York magazine tells the story of nine-year-old Molly, who at an earlier age was known as Mark:
At 3, Mark asked to dress for Halloween as Dora the Explorer; his parents bargained him down to Darth Vader, which at least featured a cape. At 5, he insisted on trick-or-treating as Gabriella Montez, the High School Musical sweetheart. By then, his birthday parties were girl-only, with girl-only themes. Any boy toys received were instantly re-gifted to a cousin.
At first, his mom was “all Free to Be You and Me about it,” she says, willing to let Mark experiment within reason. But whose reason? The neighborhood’s? (The Benders, as I’ll call them, live in a conservative suburb in the tri-state area.) Their own? They of course loved Mark, the middle of their three sons, but worried that permission amounted to encouragement. As for Mark’s “reason” — well, as many people trying to be helpful pointed out, it was pre-rational, as if this diminished instead of intensified its authenticity. Who credits a child’s wishes? Their youngest son wanted to be Spider-Man.
But the Benders knew that Mark’s desire was different: It went far deeper than a costume donned or discarded. When asked to explain himself, he’d say things like, “I want to have long hair that moves.” The Benders would counter: Well, there’s the dad at the bus stop whose hair is like that, and he’s a boy; you can be a boy like that. “But I don’t want to be a boy with those things,” Mark would answer. “I want to be a girl with those things.” The more he pushed, the more they worried, and the more desperate his rhetoric became. “Why did God make me this way?” he cried. “I don’t like myself.” “I hate myself.” “I want God to take me up to the clouds and bring me back down as a girl.”
Through her reading on the subject, Mark’s mother gradually came to feel that she and her husband had to be that “God” for their son. But it took Mark’s implicit threats of self-harm to convince his dad. “I’m in a conservative business; I sell software,” he says. “I want the normal life. And this was gonna be different, when my son is getting out of the car in a dress in front of everybody. But then you have to think about who are you protecting? Yourself or your kid? People would say, ‘I can’t believe you’d let your kid do that. That’s abuse.’ I’ll tell you what’s abuse: suicide. Do you want a live daughter or a dead son?”
I’ve been debating a little in the comments of Denny Burk’s post “A Christian vision for gender non-conforming boys.”1 Despite the title, Burk does not outline any positive vision for parents of girls like Molly. He doesn’t seem to have any positive vision, beyond saying parents can “inculcate” gender roles into unwilling children, despite the failed attempts of thousands of parents to do exactly that. But reality has nothing to do with Burk’s opinions; he seems to have no conception of the problems kids like Molly and her parents have faced. Burk writes:
This is exactly where the Christian vision of humanity has so much to offer people like the ones profiled in this article. The Bible puts solid ground beneath our feet so that we don’t have to guess at what it means to be male and female—so that parents don’t have to sow even more confusion into their child’s bewilderment.
But nothing in his article indicates that his “Christian vision” has anything but rejection to offer Molly. And kids like Molly are not “bewildered”; they know what they want. From Molly’s perspective, it’s the rest of the world that’s confused.
This, of course, is similar to the problem right-wing Christianity has with lesbian and gay people: people like Denny Burk have no positive vision to offer. Transgender people are simply supposed to spend their entire lives rejecting much of their core selves, and if it rips them up inside, that’s just what they deserve for the “sin” of wanting to be something other than their assigned gender. Suffering and self-rejection is what “the Christian vision” has to offer people like Molly.
The task of parenting requires us to understand those [gender] norms and to inculcate them into our children—even those children who have deep conflicts about their “gender identity.” [...] A parent’s job, therefore, is not to “get out of the way” but to get in the way of every disposition or habit that threatens to derail what God made children to be (Prov. 22:6). Parents who refuse to correct the destructive tendencies in their own children aren’t loving their children. They’re failing their children.
It’s so easy for people to judge other people’s parenting, isn’t it? Maybe when Burk has a “son” who is seriously considering suicide because she knows she’s a girl but the world (and her parents) are forcing her to be a boy, he’ll try out some compassion and humility instead of this unthinking, compassionless, high-horse judgmentalism.
When the country was run more according to Denny Burk’s principals, trans people were raised to think of themselves as perverts, undeserving of respect or love. It’s a horribly painful way to grow up – a wound many never fully recover from – and for most genderqueer people, right-wing Christianity has never offered any relief. Or any kindness.
No doubt there are a small number of trans or ex-trans folks who have found contentment and happiness in conservative Christianity. Good for them! But those who will not be able to find happiness that way do not deserve to live lives of self-hatred and misery.
Meanwhile, NOM co-founder Robert George took the time to sneer at trans kids on a right-wing radio show. What struck me most about George’s performance is his characterization of people who care about trans kids as “bullies,” while never expressing any compassion or concern at all for trans kids, who are quite possibly the most-bullied group on the entire planet. (George contrasts trans girls with “real” girls.)
When it comes to LGBT issues, I’d like to see conservative Christians practice a little humility.
Those past Christians, who tried to use the force of law to punish lgbt people, who condemned and ostracized them, who approved of “cures” such as shock treatments, who put children into torturous gender “correction” clinics – they were not stupider than Burk or George. They were no less loving. They were no less devout.
Yet, by current lights, even most Christians would say they were mistaken about what God wanted them to do, and the way they treated LGBT people were wrong. Logically, since being devout didn’t protect those Christians from making horrible mistakes, present-day conservative Christians should conclude that they are subject to making similar mistakes. Given their history of being not just wrong but cruel when dealing with sexual minorities, isn’t it time for Christians to practice restraint rather than leaping to judgement?
- A lot of this post is adapted from what I’ve written in comments there. [↩]