“My child was miserable, especially at school. No confidence, no friends, no laughter.”
This is how Brendon Boulware described his trans daughter before she transitioned. Not only is he the proud father of a transgender child, he is also a Christian, the son of a Methodist minister, and a lawyer. Brendon Boulware was speaking before the Missouri legislature in opposition to the transgender sports ban. Currently, there is pending legislation in a multitude of states excluding trans youth from participating on sports teams and/or prohibiting certain kinds of health care for transgender youth. Much of the lobbying on behalf of these initiatives has come from some evangelical Christian groups and individuals.
It needs no further elaboration to acknowledge that views on gender identity and gender transitioning (especially with respect to young people) vary widely in Christian communities of faith. However, given the current political climate, the issues of health care and participation in sports merit special consideration. In both cases, we need to look — first of all — at how science, along with Christian and social work values, might inform our opinion. In terms of the science, it has been clearly shown that youth who are resolute about identifying as the opposite gender will continue to do so during later development. These are the pre-adolescents and teens who, after careful and thorough assessment, qualify for treatment with puberty blockers and hormones. These are also the young people who, left untreated, are at a significantly higher risk of self-harm.
In addition, scientific studies have demonstrated the impact of non-medical gender-affirming approaches to combat gender dysphoria in this population. Allowing youth to participate on the same team as their peers of the gender they identify with is one such affirming strategy. By contrast, not allowing such participation signals non-acceptance, with all the negative repercussions of lowered self-esteem and an increased risk of mental distress and self-harm.
So what about values, religious and professional? There can be little debate as to where the NASW Code of Ethics comes down with respect to these issues. Social workers are supposed to actively defend the rights of marginalized communities and to support everyone’s right to self-determination. Finally then, how might Christians respond to the needs of trans youth? A couple of years ago, a senior BSW student, Anna Hagen, wrote on this blog what it means for her to be a Christian social worker: “As a Christian Social Worker, I will view each client as a unique child of God with gifts and strengths, worthy of dignity and respect.” And as the Christian and transgender activist Austen Hartke has noted in addressing the parents of transgender kids, children need to perceive our love for them to be “something that they can hear and feel and see” (Hartke, 2019). From a religious perspective, these two statements alone provide enough reason to back trans youth in the pursuit of their legitimate rights with regard to health care and athletic participation. If you are still in doubt, listen to the words of Brendon Boulware. He admits to “not getting it” initially, that he was teaching his daughter “to deny who she is.” But then he listened to her, enabling him to give the heart-felt testimony against the sports ban that went viral on the internet (see YouTube link below).
My own teenage daughter asked me the other day: “How can Christians not accept transgender kids? Isn’t that against their core beliefs?” When I tried to talk with her about how we need to dialogue with people who have beliefs that are different from our own, she replied, “You can’t dialogue about human rights. There are no alternatives to that.” I could not argue with her. Human rights, social justice — these are concepts that are inalienable. They have to do with respect and safety. They should apply to how we think about gender identity and how we treat trans youth. There is no alternative to full acceptance and unconditional love.
I encourage the reader to get to know some of the young people in the transgender community, to peruse the resources listed below, and to stand up in support of our trans youth. They need our help in their fight for mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing!
Dirk de Jong, PhD, LMSW, is a former school social worker. He now teaches in the social work program of Siena College in Loudonville, NY. Dirk has been a member of NACSW for 5 years
Brendon Boulware’s testimony (5 min. video):
About participation of trans youth in sports:
Rebekah’s Story (3 min. video):
Austin Hartke on parenting a trans child:
Health care for transgender youth
Johanna Olson, MD (adolescent medicine specialist at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, CA) talks about research on transgender youth (2:30 min. video):
Two pediatric endocrinologists at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, CA, report on trans youth health care (4:00 min video):