Young Christians, Gender Identity, and a Bit of Non-Advice
Editor’s Note: As part of our #AskingForAFriend series, we asked frequent contributor John Backman, who is Christian and gender nonbinary (pronouns: she/her/hers), to address a question that came up during a recent webinar: What encouragement or advice can you give to young Christians who struggle with their gender identity?
Here is her response:
I actually wouldn’t start with encouragement or advice, at least nothing I could verbalize. My first step, sometimes my only step, would be to listen—deeply, openheartedly, with full attention, suspending my own opinions for the time being to clear the decks for what they have to say.
There are two reasons for this. First, many people who’ve struggled with gender have very full minds and hearts. They’ve devoted a ton of thought, prayer, and research to the struggle, and they know their own pain and vulnerability better than I ever could. Second, many people in this boat have found few—if any—sympathetic ears. They fear ridicule, they fear shaming, and those fears are justified.
In short, they have a lot to share, and no one to share it with.
Therefore I’d hold my peace. If, after all the listening, they wanted to hear from me, I might tell them something like this, depending on what I’d heard from them:
I am so, so honored that you chose to share this with me.
Everything we discuss here is strictly confidential.*
Then, I’d want to ask questions to help them explore what they’ve told me (again, depending on what I’d heard from them). Here are a few that might be useful:
Do you feel alone in this? A lot of people—a lot of Christians—have explored what you’re exploring now. Would it help to connect with them?
How clear are you on the fact that God still loves you, will always love you, will never let you go, no matter what? (You may want to share Jesus’ consolation in John 10:27-28: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”)
Do you think of this as a struggle? Would it help you to reframe it as an exploration? (God’s no-matter-what love can free them to fully explore their identities.)
How will your parents be with your gender? Your church? Do you need support in talking with them?
Who else can you trust with this? How could you broach the subject with them?
Have you been able to stay in touch with God during all this? If so, how? (What kind of prayer, what books of the Bible have helped, etc.) If not, what might help you get the comfort and support from God that you need?
So, going back to the original question. The approach described in this post (listen first, questions later) never gets around to advice, and I think that’s OK. In contrast, this entire approach is about encouragement, even if not in so many words. Few things give people the courage to persevere like the sense of being heard.
Finally, a word of encouragement to the approachee—the person to whom young Christians come with issues like gender exploration. The fact that they chose you says a ton about your trustworthiness, your sensitivity, your compassion. You can do this. Just lean into those qualities, let them take the lead, and listen. *State laws may make this promise impossible to keep, so know your legal obligations before you make such a promise. Oh, and while you’re at it, think about trying to change laws that force you to notify someone. They may be well-meant, but too often they serve to silence young people who can’t afford to be silenced.