A child, youth, or family has just come out to your congregation as transgender, gender creative, gender non-conforming, non-binary, etc.. Wonderful! Now what? Here are four touch points for you to consider and some of the Frequently Asked Questions we've seen:
As you navigate forward with this child, youth, and family keep these 4 things in mind:
1. Believe the child/youth
One of the most important things we can do is believe each other when we share our gender identities. This holds all the more true for children and youth since adultism often means they face adults who don't believe them or take them seriously.
2. Follow their lead
Depending on where someone is at in their own gender identity development (as a child or youth or as a family) they will want and need different levels of support. Always follow the lead of the child, youth, and family with regard to how they want to be in the community with regard to their gender identity.
3. Support the whole family
When a child or youth comes out as transgender, non-binary, gnc, or gender creative the whole family system is at play. Stresses and joys are added into the life of the family that weren't there before. Think about providing supportive spaces for all parts of the family (parent/guardian(s), siblings, etc.). If a youth has been rejected from their family because of their gender identity helping them find healthy chosen family can be key as well.
4. Take a whole-program approach rather than an identified patient approach.
While it is important to provide the specific support a child, youth, or family needs it is often too easy for liberal religious communities to treat people like identified patients. If all of our energy goes into "taking care of" or "helping" the one individual we objectify that person and can feel really good about how we "handled" the one time a kid came out to us as transgender. Not only do many children, youth, and families not want to be singled out as they look for community, this lets us off the hook for creating a community in which every child and youth who walks through the door feels included, celebrated, and seen. Rather than taking a "what do we do for this child/youth" approach, think about questions like "how are transgender and non-binary experiences represented and celebrated across my community and programs on a regular basis?" and "how do we unconsciously perpetuate a binary understanding of gender in this community?"
Frequently Asked Questions
We don’t have any trans/gnc children or youth. Do we really need to think about this yet?
Yes! First, you may have children or youth who currently identify or will grow into their identity as transgender, gnc, or gender creative. We can never assume we know everyone’s gender identity. Second, moving away from an identified patient model into a model of gender-justice means we don’t wait for someone to show up we can react to as a “problem” to be resolved or catered to in order to make changes. Instead, we proactively create a community where children, youth, and families of all gender identities and expressions are embraced and celebrated. Having clear statements, policies, and programs that make the trans and gnc experience visible and centered and making moves to break open gender binaries as a community is an important part of building Beloved Community.
If a child or youth comes out to me as transgender or non-binary do I need to tell their parent/guardian?
No. In fact, in some states outing a child to their parent/guardian is illegal. If a child/youth comes out to you in confidence, assure them that who they are is theirs alone to share and that you will not disclose their identity without their permission. Talk with them about how they would like to be out in your community.
A child/youth is non-binary but our forms only offer 2 genders. Do we need to change them?
Yes. In fact, this might be a great opportunity to look at your forms and see what information you need versus what is asked for on the forms. If you determine you need information about gender (though you will likely find there are few cases where you do) there are ways to ask for it that are more expansive than binary check boxes (even if you put the dreaded “other” as an option). An open-ended question like “tell me about your child(s) gender” or “is there anything else that would be helpful for us to know about your child(ren)?” may get you the information while leaving it open for the family.
They child/youth is only [3, 5, 12, 18—whatever], can they really know their gender identity?
Research is showing that children as young as 2 and 3 can have very solid senses of their gender identity. If a young child (or their parents) come comes out to you—believe them! For some of us, discovering and fully articulating an authentic gender identity may take a little longer so just because someone doesn’t come out until adolescence or later doesn’t mean their identity is any less real. If a youth comes out to you—believe them!
What if this is only a phase?
It probably isn’t a phase. It is true that children and particularly youth are in what cultural sociologist Ann Swidler would describe as “unsettled” where they are drawing on different aspects of their cultural repertoire to try on and build cultural meanings. Some things will stick, others will not as they build longer-lasting understandings of self and the world around them. However, for the majority of children and youth who come out to you as transgender or non-binary it isn’t a phase. Remember—just because this is the first time a child/youth or family has come out to you doesn’t mean it is the first time they have thought about their gender. One of the standards often used in clinical settings to help families decide about transitions and interventions is that a child or youth’s is persistent, consistent, and insistent in their gender identity.
On another note—if what you mean by “phase” is they will express themselves differently down the road then so what if it is a “phase”? (First, remember, gender expression and gender identity are not the same thing.) On all of our gendered journeys we come to different understandings and expressions of our gendered selves throughout our lives. Our role is not to say “we will only accept you as we expect you to be in 10 year” but to journey with each other right now, respecting the inherent worth and dignity of each person in front of us at that moment.
How do we tell the other kids/youth/families?
Talk to the child or youth and their parents (when appropriate) and follow their lead. In almost all of the Unitarian Universalist religious education/exploration programs that have shared with us the process of a child/youth transitioning in their program this was the easiest part. Most of the times kids and other youth are just going to roll with it. A simple reintroduction to a class is often all that it takes. Something along the lines of “Everyone, our friend here’s name is now Aleesha and they use they, them, theirs pronouns.” is often enough. Some families may desire a more public or ritualized transition (though most will not). There is likely no need to make a big announcement to other families unless the child, youth, or family would like to share their journey in that way.
Should we start asking everyone to share their pronouns during introductions?
This is a trickier question. For many who are trans, non-binary, or gnc being able say their pronouns and having their cisgender peers need to do the same is an important part of creating the community of which they want to be a part. For many this is seen as unnecessarily outing them and causes harm. This might be a good discussion for a youth group to have when covenanting. You may also choose to simply model naming pronouns without making it a part of a regular introduction.
How do we support our religious education leaders and youth advisors?
Make sure they have the information they need to best support the child/youth and family. This may mean making sure rosters are updated with any name changes (if the child/youth has transitioned or changed their name while in the program) and that the leaders have links to resources to educate themselves on questions they might have.
Start including training and discussion about gender expansive classrooms into your regular support structures (retreats, trainings, etc.) so that all of your leaders are working with you to create a program where they can confidently support children and youth of all gender identities.
My volunteers/staff/families have a lot of questions about a particular child/youth’s transition. Should I encourage them to ask about it?
Probably not. While a general rule to follow is to ask the person or family directly, most of the time questions specifically about a child or youth’s transition are often invasive and unnecessary. A better rule regarding transition is to respect the privacy of the individual and family and let them lead. Have your people do a some reflection on not just what they want to know but why they want to know it. If it is a matter of curiosity rather than because that information is really critical to best supporting the child/youth or family it is better to point them to resources to learn about experiences of trans and gnc children and youth generally.
There are members of the community who really struggle with changing names or pronouns. Can we just let that go?
No. Calling someone by their name and using the correct pronouns is a very basic but very important way to see and respect someone. We do not get to pass on this because someone is a child or youth or because we don’t want to put the effort in to use the right name or pronouns. Kind and consistent reminders like, “Just a reminder that Damian uses he, him, his pronouns” are a good way to call us back into covenant.
Is there particular support I should be thinking about that this child/youth and family might need?
Yes. While families with children or youth who are transgender, non-binary, or gender creative have many of the same joys and challenges as families with only cisgender children, there are some needs that are specific to or heightened for these children and youth. For instance, transgender children and youth have one of the highest rates of being bullied and attempting suicide. Be sure to familiarize yourself with local and national resources around bullying and suicide such as the Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org). Keep checking out the genderjustfaith.org blog for upcoming posts on specific resources for: trans foster children/youth; trans children/youth of color and their families; finding mental health support and allies.
This list is not exhaustive and is a continual work in progress as things move very quickly. Do you have other questions or resources to offer? Be in touch!